Three false beliefs in the field of education

Teachers’ beliefs about punishment have real and bad consequences for students and their learning


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Eighteen of the 20 teachers agreed that corporal punishment was necessary to make children learn. One of them described it as empathetic hitting, which received enthusiastic endorsement as the best term to describe what they believed in. They talked about their principles of empathetic hitting, for example, no injury must be caused, make an example of a few and don’t hit everyone, don’t use a stick. The discussions’ ire was aimed at the policy of the government which has made corporal punishment illegal, with swift and serious consequences for anyone indulging in it. They blamed this approach as one of the impediments to improving learning in schools.

It was a cool evening outside, but the room we were sitting in was like a heat sink. It was an old building, in the middle of the town, it felt like an old jail, perhaps partly because of the conversation. The facilitator of the session made a range of sound arguments against corporal punishment, from the psychological to the ethical, including talking about rigorous research on how corporal punishment actually harms learning. All this was dismissed as being theoretical stuff, disconnected from reality. Catching on to one of the arguments of the facilitator, one of the teachers had explained haltingly that he too believed that if children had to really learn and understand, they must not be afraid. And his own experience suggested that even sporadic incidents of corporal punishment make children fearful. He was ignored.

The one who had been quiet thus far asked the group, “Why shouldn’t all of you also get some empathetic hitting?” He referred to teacher-training sessions, and pointed out that many teachers are undisciplined, they don’t pay attention, they don’t learn, so why should the same method not be applied to them? The conviction of the group could not conjure up any confident response, aside from lamely pointing out that they were adults. This did not stand up to his direct counter-attack of “so what?” He added another dimension, suggesting that if corporal punishment is so effective, why not use it in colleges also?

The smug consensus and sense of victory of having shown the facilitator the wisdom of the real world was mauled. Every one of the 18 left grumbling, since they knew in their hearts that they had no credible defence to the quiet one’s attack on one of their firm beliefs.

Teachers’ beliefs about punishment have real and bad consequences for students and their learning. These beliefs are held not because teachers themselves are uncaring. But because they are using prejudices and stereotypes as easy explanations for the complex circumstances they face, a phenomenon well recognized in psychology. Here are two more such beliefs.

More than a few times, a teacher has taken me to his classroom, eager to show how good his students are. In many of the conversations with the students, there is a situation where a particular student is not able to respond adequately to a question asked. More than a few times, the teacher has turned to me, and right in front of the class, has explained to me that the student is stupid, which is why he is not able to respond.

Aside from the obvious and utter lack of sensitivity in this action, there is something deeper and more deleterious at work. Many teachers believe that some children are inherently intelligent and some inherently stupid. While they see this as a continuum and not neat categories, the core of the belief is that some children are incapable of learning, and that the problem is within them. This archaic and totally false belief, which has been demolished by decades of empirical and theoretical evidence, still survives within these teachers. The reality is that all children can learn, though they do learn in different ways and at different paces. A child who is not learning (the formal curriculum) is manifesting the limitations and failures of her educational environment, in school and outside; the problem is not within the child.

The related false belief is that the children of the “poor” are generally less capable of learning. The “poor” here often refers also to the socially disadvantaged, characterized by caste, religion, tribal affiliation and migratory status. Children from such disadvantaged families certainly do not have the benefit of opportunities for learning and educational support similar to that of children from socio-economically better off families. So teachers do need to make different kinds of (and often more) effort with children from disadvantaged families. But blaming the child for this is incorrect. It is also as dysfunctional and as inhumane as corporal punishment.

The three false beliefs that I have referred to are not only held by groups of teachers, but are widespread in our society. However, in the case of teachers, these beliefs directly influence their professional behaviour, and thus must be systematically tackled.

Teachers need to be reflective, to detect and correct their own biases and false beliefs. This requires continuous and direct engagement with existing teachers, cultural changes in the education system and fundamental changes in teacher education. Without doubt, changing beliefs is more difficult than developing capacity in content and pedagogy, but it is more important too.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere

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