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Does punishment help us learn better?

When we were six-year-old boys in 1972, our parents sent us to learn Arabic at the local mosque. We were children, and that’s why our parents didn’t bother to wake us up at fajr prayer, but we went to the mosque after daybreak. The muezzin of the mosque used to teach us the basics — the alphabet and pronunciation from the “kaida.” The khadem used to teach “ampara” to the bigger boys, and the imam taught Qur’an to the older boys.
We didn’t know why and what to learn. We went to learn because our parents wanted us to. We were good boys and always listened to our mom and dad when it came to learning. We were also quite eager about learning Arabic. However, our eagerness suffered setbacks when we experienced the teacher striking his cane on the palms of our hands when we failed to memorize from the kaida.
He used to do that as a punishment for failing to learn. Fearing the pain struck by the cane, we would memorize the task. Our teacher was happy.
We memorized it — under pressure. But did we learn it?
Allow me to tell you another story.
When I was in class II, in 1973, we, the boys and girls, on a fantastic morning, were gossiping, shouting, yelling at each other in the classroom. Hearing our howls from quite far, our math teacher stormed in. He had a broken piece of wood-stick from an old chair in hand. I was at the front bench and he struck me with that.
Trying to protect myself, in defense I raised my hands. He didn’t know the wood-stick bore a nail on it.
The nail pierced into the bone of the little finger of my right hand. I still carry a physical scar of it.Why did he do it? Well, he wanted us to make us disciplined, teach us a lesson. He was, no doubt, quite successful. We didn’t howl inside the classroom in the absence of a teacher any more.
But the problem was, we developed a sense of negation at that teacher. Whenever he came to teach us math, somehow we acquired a collective consciousness not to listen to him.
The outcome? Well, we didn’t learn anything.
Many of our tiffin breaks were spent talking about him. He didn’t have to use that wood-stick. His presence was good enough to quiet us.
On the contrary, our educators in cadet college were wise men. The worst punishment they made us suffer when we performed poorly in studies was to stand on one leg and at the same time hold our ears with both hands. Then again, those punishments too didn’t inspire us to do better in our studies or become better disciplined students.
My question is: Do children start learning better when they are punished during the classes?
I have my doubts. Almost all teachers in this country believe that punishments help make the children learn better. Often, we read the news of children being severely punished by their teachers, and the children falling ill or becoming wounded.
I don’t want to cite any theory, but will speak my mind about it. Punishing children for their studies creates fear in them and leaves a kind of scar in their minds, perhaps, for the rest of their lives. For example, I don’t remember my teachers — who had punished us during the school years — with fondness.
Rather, I remember them as persons with less love in their heart for their students. And that was why their teachings weren’t very effective for us.
Recently, 25 students of a madrasa in Burichong, Comilla had to be hospitalized, as their teacher punished them. The punishment is called “head down.” They had to keep their bodies upside down for half an hour. And they fell sick. Their fault: They stole some chanachur.
Please, give us a break, dear teacher. The sky didn’t fall when the children stole chanachur.
To my mind, punishment leads to low self-esteem among children. Learning doesn’t work positively when we create an environment of fear and hostility. Molding the minds of the children with fear cannot bring good results in the long run. Punishment creates a mental state in which children lose their interest to learn.
Some, of course, argue that they don’t learn anything if we aren’t tough and strict with them. Now, why do they have to learn what you are enforcing on them? What you are teaching is what you want them to learn. Why? Why don’t you let them learn with joy and fun?
Bangladesh is set to celebrate 50 years of its independence in 2021. It had a mixed journey as a nation with many ups and downs. Over the past five decades, many aspects of our lives have changed positively, we have advanced, we have progressed in many fields.
But unfortunately, the system and style of educating our children has remained in the dark ages. We must focus on this aspect. Otherwise, the unseen impact of being punished in childhood will always be there as a negative energy among the people.
First published in Dhaka Tribune

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