What If Education Were Not Punitive?

When I encounter my first-year college composition students, I’m continually surprised by their paranoia. “How many paragraphs do you want in my essay?” they ask. “My high school teacher took off points for every grammar error,” they say. My new college students see the educational environment not as a place of wonder and discovery, but as a minefield where they could make the wrong step at any moment.

We have to ask ourselves, what does it do to students’ minds to make education a punitive experience?

At the beginning of every semester, my students are so afraid of “doing things wrong” that they second-guess everything they do … or, more sadly, they go through the motions of education, having given up in their hearts long ago.

This is not the energy that will help them thrive. I spend the majority of my time trying to undo this attitude of fear. I want my students to be grateful for their mistakes. I want them to try new things in their reading and writing. I want them to feel open and daring, not tight and closed. I want to cultivate their curiosity, not their obedience.

Why do adults feel the need to make school a place where students are ranked, threatened, and punished with low grades or other means? Why do we need so much for our students to fall in line, “get with the program,” and “meet the standards”? What need does this satisfy?

On the political level, the push for standards has its roots in money. There is money, a lot of it, to be made from educational testing and test preparation. These companies fund the politicians who support testing. No one is funding the politicians who are against testing. Besides, elaborate schemes to create new standards and new “accountability measures” make everyone feel like we are doing something about education in America.

It is simply shameful that money and political capital have so much influence on how we teach our students.

On a more personal level, teachers I know say that there must be consequences for a lack of learning, or else no learning will take place. The only way students will meet the standards we set for them is if there is a consequence for not meeting those standards.

I disagree. I think we need to shift our thinking and ask a different question: What do we sacrifice in education when we place so much emphasis on standards?

Certainly, we sacrifice deep student engagement and motivation. Students know when teachers are teaching to the test, and they are just as bored as teachers are with this activity. Every semester, during our unit on standardized testing, my students tell me that they “never tried” on those tests because “they didn’t count.” Think about this for a moment. With our punitive system, we’ve cultured our students to treat education as an activity we only do for the points, for the outcome. My students have been through 12 years of education, but most of them have yet to experience the value of the process of learning—the excitement that comes from figuring something out, concentrating, trying, making mistakes, then trying again. Students aren’t likely to feel that excitement if they’re afraid of being punished for making mistakes.

We have taught our students to be concerned primarily with the outcome of their learning: the test, the essay, the final grade. We do this at great peril. Such lessons have created a culture of students who dislike school, who see it as a place where they are judged, not inspired.

So instead of asking “What bad things will happen if we abandon standards and the punitive measures we need to enforce them?”, we should ask, “What bad things will happen if we sacrifice student engagement to the ideal of standards?”

I believe that we can have an educational system that offers challenge and rigor without being punitive. It’s not easy to do, and will require more resources that what we currently give. But first, just imagine it. Can you imagine school as a place where students are not ranked, not punished, and not threatened to do this or else? Can you imagine school as a place where we focused all of our energy on student engagement and motivation? I’d love to work in a place like this. I imagine students would, too.

2 thoughts on “What If Education Were Not Punitive?”

  • Good point of view! Students undergo great deal of stress lately, and many of their essays are bought from essay writing services, so grading doesn’t really show something true in this case.

  • My first grader is already stressed when a report card comes home, even though we don’t make a big deal about it. He’s struggling for reasons we don’t fully understand yet, but it’s clearly bothering him that he scores poorly on spelling tests and other assessments. I wish there were an alternative (that we could afford, that is). It saddens me to see his perception of himself and of school in general tarnished so early in his life.

    I’ve been studying reading apprenticeship strategies, and they provide an emphasis on process – worth checking out.

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