Rewards, Punishments and Learning

The teacher was standing at the blackboard surveying the group of children in the class.  She had just demonstrated how to print the lower case letter ‘f’ within the three horizontal lines that were neatly drawn on the board.  Now she was looking for a child to come to the board and prove that she had been successful in ‘teaching’ the proper placement of the letter.

I sunk lower in my seat, trying not to make eye contact.  The words ‘Please, not me’ looped silently in my head.  I knew how to print the letter ‘f’.  I knew how to print all the letters in the alphabet but I didn’t want to go to the board and show her or anyone else.

The teacher called my name.

I stood up and walked slowly to the front of the class.  I looked at the ground in front of me – trying not to notice everyone staring at me.  I wanted to scream and run out of the room but that would have drawn even more attention to me.

I took the piece of chalk that the teacher offered me.  I could feel the other children watching me as I tentatively placed the tip of the chalk against the board and drew a straight line down.  I knew I had already failed to follow the instructions and I contemplated how to correct it.  I quickly placed the chalk back at the top of the vertical line and added the curve and then finished the ‘f’ with the line across.

The teacher’s reaction was swift.  “Wrong” she said sternly as she took the chalk from me and proceeded to demonstrate the ‘correct’ method.  She then instructed me to go to the other end of the blackboard and fill two full lines with properly formed f’s.

I scuttled to the end of the board and began the task.  The class continued to ‘learn’ other letters and then they went out for recess. With the now empty classroom my printing improved.  The teacher came to inspect my progress.  Satisfied, she released me from the task and I went out to play.

More than forty years has passed and I still pause and shudder each and every time I print an ‘incorrect’ letter f.  Yet, how I print the letters is irrelevant to others as long as they are readable.  So, was the teacher’s lesson successful?

I’d like to believe that we don’t teach like that anymore.

Printing is a tool of communication – one of many.  Using tools takes practice.  Not right or wrong, reward or punishment.  Learning requires trial and error; freedom to explore and experiment without fear of being wrong.  Punishments and rewards only teach compliance – nothing more.

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