Recently I chanced to visit an iconic school in one of the metropolitan cities in India. The classrooms in the school were located in lush surroundings. Space was something the school didn’t lack – perhaps one of the necessities to be an iconic school apart from producing celebrities. Yet, for all the serenity, there was an eerie tone added to the atmosphere too. The first thing one would notice is the absolute silence – a sign of well-disciplined school environment. As I stepped to take a stroll in the corridors, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of 14-year-old students standing outside a classroom. They were probably 9th graders. Most of them hung their heads low and one can almost taste the fear in their faces. I immediately recognised the situation, having myself experienced being one of the out-standers, back when I was in school. True to my assumption, some of them were holding their notebooks to their chest while others were empty handed. So they didn’t do their homework and were kicked out of the class, I figured.
I didn’t make much of it. If anything, it’s just a gentle way of punishing, I thought. I decided to continue walking past them while giving them an empathetic (sympathetic?) look. I took a glance inside the classroom and that’s when I was taken aback with what I saw. For a moment, I thought the student I saw in front of the class was in a yoga posture. But no – it quickly became quite apparent that he was being punished by the teacher. A convenient way for the teacher to discipline the student by shaming him in front of all his peers (with some physical discomfort). The student lied prostrate on his knees, with his back bent forward to the point where his head touched the ground. As a silver lining to this punishment the student also had to hold his earlobes with his hands – a common sign of repenting in Indian (Hindu) tradition.
Corporal Punishment in Indian Schools
My temperament at the moment didn’t allow me to voice my thoughts – for I felt I would be interfering with or questioning the authority of the teacher. Corporal punishment, if we may label it so, is not so alien to me and my friends. In fact, most of us (except possibly the millennials) have gone through it to some degree in our schooling irrespective of our geographical background. The mildest form of corporal punishment could be causing mental distress to a student by abusing or shaming the student in front of the class. The harshest form of it could be when the teacher physical harms the child – an outright act of violence. In the 21st century, we have finally come to our wits and realised punishment will serve only to worsen the situation rather than help the student ultimately learn. The physical nature of corporal punishment can not only cause serious bodily harm, but the psychological repercussions of the memory can scar the student for his life.
Despite India showing its full commitment to completely criminalise corporal punishment, the actual implementation is lax even today. The current law in India allows for corporal punishment by parents at home. And there are no signs or intentions of eliminating it at home. In schools, Indian law seems to be more focused on areas like exempting certain schools (madrasas, religious institutions) from a total ban on such punishment or narrowing down the ban to a certain age group (currently 6-14). Britain fully banned corporal punishment in British schools only in 1987. A glimpse at the history of the legal evolution of corporal punishment in the Britain has a lot to teach. In spite of significant resistance against it, throughout the 20th century, Britain ended up creating more laws to explicitly allow corporal punishment in schools. This is a poignant reminder of how, many conservative traditions trickled down from our forbearers, take centuries to shed and how they take unexpected turns before finally making sense. Although the situation is not abysmal in India, there’s certainly a need for proactive immediate action to be taken.
One might still be tempted to think that corporal punishment is a perfect way to discipline students instantly. As the saying goes, spare the rod, spoil the child. This leads us straight back to the reward vs punishment (or carrot vs stick) debate. Albeit studies are still inconclusive on the relative effectiveness of the two methods in disciplining, there’s a predominant inclination towards reward (or carrot) being more effective than punishment (or stick) when it comes to cognitive learning. There’s an added element of moral/ethical aspect to this debate that argues against the fundamental idea of punishment.
Sure, a quick slap or smack might give us the expected behaviour should be Sure, a quick slap or smack might give us the expected behaviour I, for one, had decided never to use corporal punishment with anyone having been myself subjected to it. Sometimes, more than education, a little empathy can do a lot in making the world a much better place for everyone.
By Yathish Dhavala – Educational Specialist