No, no! I can’t do that, I’ll get a consequence,” exclaimed the young child of not more than ten to his friend at breakfast in the school dining hall. The teacher, an accidental listener, while no doubt amused, could read absolutely no trace of sarcasm in this unorthodox usage of the word ‘consequence’ by the boy. Rather, the statement appeared to have come from a location of disarming honesty and innocence.
This little anecdote serves to illustrate the occasionally unpredictable and surprising imprint of our interaction with children in our schools. For many or all of us—educators in Krishnamurti schools—it is no doubt an article of faith that punishment of any kind has no place in the educational process. We believe that both ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’ are extrinsic levers, often used by society to bring about a certain desirable behaviour. Any such conditioning or modification of the child’s mind takes us further away from our educational intent.
Yet, here was this child who had internalized a new and sensitive vocabulary by simply equating it with an old and conventional approach. Did the child see ‘consequence’ as different from ‘punishment’ at all, regardless of how the educator viewed it? The ‘consequence’ which the child was referring to in his remark to his friend could definitely not have been punitive or retributory in nature, but did it not still end up causing the same behavioural modification in him which we would like to be so mindful of?
This article dwells on the rather involved theme of ‘reward and punishment’ by articulating a few such difficult and sometimes testing questions. Without resorting to the formulation of a central thesis of any sort, its intent is to underscore the complex and challenging terrain we navigate in our daily lives as teachers. In the asking of these questions, can there be renewed dialogue amongst us, and from this, can there be fresh clarity and understanding for each one of us who has embarked on this learning journey which goes beyond mere faith or change in vocabulary?
In the educational environment we seek to create for children in our schools, we consciously strive to ensure that there are neither external motivators like ranks, medals or prizes; nor deterrents like punishments, fines or penalties. Nevertheless, when one sees unthinking, hurtful or unsafe behaviour from a child, one needs to respond firmly and decisively. Such behaviour oftentimes necessitates a conversation between the teacher and the student, which is nonjudgmental and non-intimidating, and could in turn lead to some reflection from the child on his action. As educators, we are quite clear of our intent in having these conversations and the need for the child to reflect quietly and deeply on his behaviour. At the same time, are we fully cognizant of and sensitive to how children are interpreting and internalizing these conversations, which are quite clearly consequences of undesirable behaviour?
In this regard it may be useful to remind ourselves that, to a child, ‘punishment’ does not always only mean an overt disciplinary measure. The denying of a certain enjoyable experience can also be construed as punishment. Conversations with children about unpleasant incidents or actions can be time consuming as the teacher waits for the child to open up and share his thoughts and feelings. On some occasions, these conversations could very well happen during games classes, causing the child to feel that it is a loss of precious playtime. In such instances, as teachers, have we not seen children quickly doing and saying all the ‘right’ things in order to avoid that dreaded, long conversation with the teacher and thereby, to ensure that the much-loved games period is not lost fully? In this context, we also observe that children can be very perceptive in understanding organizational structures, human relationships and hierarchies.
A simple request to have a chat with a senior teacher can very well be perceived by the child as an unwanted brush with ‘authority’, which could induce fear and the triggering of a certain modified behaviour in the child. So, even in the absence of any punishment, explicit or otherwise, are children impelled to adapt and modify their personalities and responses so as to guard their self-interests? Regardless of the vocabulary we use then, are both ‘punishments’ and ‘consequences’ bringing about the same second-hand response in our children which Krishnamurti warned about? How can one work with these deeply conditioned responses, which are invoked in such situations?
The points raised so far are—the need to go beyond a mere shift in vocabulary; and the insight that we are pliable to our environments and capable of modifying our responses to suit our self-interests. While very relevant in the educational context we work in, these also pertain to the larger sphere of living and learning. Let us look now at a more closely defined area, that of academic learning.
For us educators in the Krishnamurti schools, academic learning through intrinsic motivation without any resort to external motivators is desirable, wholesome and the right way to learn. However, has our daily experience of working with children shown us that this model of academic learning is possible for all? Or do we see that this quality of self-motivated learning in schools is more the exception than the rule? There’s no gainsaying that, at its heart, in the process of academic learning one has to routinely encounter failure, frustration and disappointment. It is essential for every academic learner to find the inner strength to face this struggle, accept it, and persist with it, in order to make progress. The cultivation of this resilient attitude to academic learning is perhaps more integral to one’s education than the quantum of learning itself.
In this regard, what has our first-hand experience been as teachers in schools? We certainly do come across students who have a curious mindset, a bright spark, and a clear and innate ability to pursue learning in an academic sense. On the other hand, we also encounter, quite routinely, many students who struggle to find the inner resourcefulness and strength needed to negotiate this path. It appears that while a handful of students seem temperamentally suited to learn sans any external motivation or fear, the majority do struggle with the process, and consequently resign themselves to a minimum standard of learning. What have our responses as teachers been in these situations? How can we help academic learners not give up too quickly, or too often, in their individual learning journeys? What can help children build the initial grit required to get started on the academic learning process after which they may be better placed to find joy and motivation in their own intrinsic abilities?
Weigh this along with the fact that regardless of the presence or absence of an orchestrated external system of motivators and deterrents, one also notices that for both children and adults, the very outcomes of their skill-based learning efforts, serve as either a boost to confidence and further toil, or a dampener to do more. When a child tastes ‘success’ while solving a mathematical puzzle or while trying a new skill on the basketball court, does that ‘success’ itself perform the role of a ‘reward’ and an incentive to do more? And when the learning outcome is not a positive one, does it serve as a deterrent to further effort?
Do learning outcomes therefore have in-built motivators and disappointments, and if yes, can there be no learning environment free of ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’? Is it possible then to function in this world without being influenced at all by these learning outcomes, which perhaps work quite akin to the system of rewards and punishments? What is the distinction between the inner world of ‘outcome-based drivers and deterrents’ in the learner’s mind and the external world of ‘result-based praise and penalties’ in the learning environment? How do we as teachers attempt to understand these nuances and how do we manifest that wisdom in our work with children?
As teachers and educators, we would have no doubt often seen that when a reasonable, yet firm and consistent demand is placed on children, they rise to the demand and meet it. In fact, our experience may have also shown that this demand is not just desirable, but necessary in the educational process, because it brings about a certain thrust of effort, a sharpness and a definite focus in the respondent. It is essential of course to ensure that the demand we place on children is not one of coercion or threat, or accompanied by any promise of gratification. Still, even while this demand is shorn of any reward or punishment, is it not true that there is some expectation of a certain quality of response which is getting communicated from the teacher to the student? How does the student interpret and assess this expectation? Does the expectation of the teacher willy-nilly become the determinant of the student’s quality of response and quantum of effort? While it may not be possible to de-link learning environments and allied expectations from each other, surely the teacher should be in control of how he holds himself and acts when encountering the child’s eventual response. An unthoughtful or impatient statement from the teacher, along with the set of expectations he holds, can easily lead to situations where children will feel compelled to alter their behaviour and response similar to what they would do in an environment which sanctifies reward and punishment. Can we as educators be acutely aware of this and watch ourselves carefully when we place demands on the children we work with?
In conclusion, the tenor of this article has been not so much to critique established approaches and belief systems in our schools but to ask whether we are fully satisfied with how much we have tilled this ground of motivation, expectation, fear and disappointment, in the context of Krishnamurti’s teachings. How do we find the means to push ourselves and the children we work with to critically examine our responses to situations and see in them our own deep-seated conditioning? How do we persevere and go beyond language, norms and philosophy in our bid to discern the complex human condition which forms the substratum of the work we do?