When Education Becomes Punishment



Shawn, the Dictator

Last week, I had to do the worse thing I think a teacher could do. I was subbing for one teacher, and marking during one of her Prep periods, when the school principal asked me to babysit, and I use the word literally, a Junior High class that had been misbehaving the previous period. (And no, I don’t know what they were doing.) So, I had to babysit them, and they had to read, something none of them wanted to do, particularly since they were being kept from gym.

Neither the students nor I were happy about the arrangement. They were distressed because they were missing gym and I was distressed because reading was their punishment. Most of them refused to read, which just made my job harder and more distasteful. Because of their reluctance and regular teacher and principal checks, I had to actively enforce the reading punishment order. (And the definition of dictator is … Mr. Urban?)

Really? Reading as punishment? My hands are gyrating in the air even as I type this. Punishment? What?

Some Disturbing Facts



Here, I should present some background information.

First, in Alberta, it is estimated that 40% of the adult population (16yr+) is functionally illiterate. This of course doesn’t mean that these adults cannot read and write. But it does mean that they have difficulty functionally comprehending and using what they are reading and its implications. That statistic is very sobering. And I know the problem is not due to the lack of quality teaching.

Second, I am relatively new at teaching, and have been out of a K-12 classroom for … well, let me use the word decades. I don’t remember whether students my age, when they were in K-12, hated reading. I suspect some did, but most, like me, enjoyed it. By their own admission most of the students I teach today do not like reading, ever, at all. And using reading as a punishment does not build eager readers.

Third, contrary to my students, I love reading, a lot. I have been reading for enjoyment for as long as I can remember. I started “seriously” reading when my grade six teacher read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my class. Of course, I read since I was a toddler and some of my favorite writing themes I can trace back to these early times. My careers, ecology and teaching, rely heavily on reading. So, reading is not just enjoyable, it is practical. (Interesting, how I am reduced to defending reading here.)




So, I am left with contradictions. To me, reading is a life-growing activity. One can not lose by learning to read and to enjoy reading. Yet, my students dislike it. Worse yet, reading is used as a punishment for them. (Actually, it is probably just used as a filler while they are being punished, but it is still being forced on them and they associate it with their punishment.) Finally, I, someone who celebrates reading and desires to pass that celebration to my students, am required to ensure the punished students are reading while I babysit them.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. And I worry the loss could be life-long. I personally hate being the enforcer of this punishment, for it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what I hoped to give to my students. I worry that I stole something very precious from my students, something that they will never get back.

I wonder. Has anyone had to deal with a similar situation? If you have, what did you do? If you haven’t, what would you do?


4 thoughts on “When Education Becomes Punishment

  1. I share your concerns and notice the same responses in my classroom (High School English). I know for a fact that there are grade 12 students in my own classroom who take pride in the fact that they’ve never read a novel in their lives, even though our curriculum demands that they read at least one a year.
    The fact is, reading is punishment. (Not for me, I love it- except for Jane Eyre which was like pulling teeth.) I think that this is due in large part to your linked statistic: most students can read the words but don’t understand what those words mean. They struggle to reach literal comprehension and only a few reach any level of appreciation. And why read something you don’t like or understand? Novel, textbook, instructions, etc.
    Luckily for these students in the short term, most of their tests don’t have anything to do with appreciation- literal comprehension is usually enough. Hmm, I have more to say about this, but this is your blog post, not mine! =)

    • Hi Erin,

      Don’t we all have our Jane Eyre’s? Mine is The Great Gatsby. It is not exactly the worst writing I ever read, but it is the worst I was required to read. 😉

      Part of the illiteracy problem I think is that students are continuously being asked to find the deeper meaning behind what they are reading. Looking at this requirement from the students’ point of view, I can see how they can wonder why people don’t just write what they mean, instead of burying their messages under obscure cover stories. The whole process would seem ridiculously vain and frustrating.

      Going deeper than the surface, in any subject, has the added side effect that the magic that the surface hints at and blankets is forever sloughed when the underlying mechanisim or meaning is learned. Sometimes, the magic, though less wise (and so less mature), is more attractive. I have often wondered if it should really be my job to remove the magic – the unknown horizon – for the sake of increasing knowledge and wisdom. Obviously, not doing so negates the likelihood of progress, but doing so negates captive curiosity, the very urge to learn.

      (This problem of course suggests that a strong way to teach is to have the new knowledge open new surfaces, new horizons and new magic, just like an onion, so that urge to learn and that curiosity leap ever deeper always staying out of the students’ reach.)

      On the flip side, one of my colleagues suggested that students today might be “book” illiterate because they are so digitally literate instead. Books, after all, are so slow, ancient and lacking of multiple inputs and quick gratifications. Yet, my other colleagues and I noted that kids today are actually less digitally literate than adults. They understand how to use social technology – Twitter, Facebook and IM, but ask them how to change that technology or about any other technology and they are lost unless they are taught. I can program from first principles, and prefer to do so. I write my posts in HTML; the WYSIWYG quite literally aggravates me. I seek out, play with and use applications to serve new functions. And I can diagnose and fix problems with code. My students can not. They think that is silly, yet they are dependent on others to make sure the technology they use works and has up-to-date features, almost like they depend on teachers to find or give them the resources or answers they need to complete a task.

      Isn’t our task to reduce our students’ dependencies? And yet isn’t that what they are digging themselves deeper into?

      I think the only influence technology has on student “book” literacy is consumption of time. Books waste their limited social time, so are a nuisance. No wonder they do not comprehend what they read, nor appreciate it, when “books” steal precious social time from them. Yet the opposite is also true.

      Socially, at least digitally, students are very literate and can communicate quite eloquently. But socialization is only part of their lives and not enough for them to thrive in modern culture.

      Perhaps we should take a new look at what our students experience when we teach. We should look at how we teach, placing emphasis on joy in discovery, in digging beneath the surface, in appreciation. And perhaps, since this is part of our manditory curriculum (at least where I live), we should test these aspects, including appreciation, in a way which produces wiser curious people.

      Since you brought the topic up, Erin, if you would like to write a guest post on literacy, appreciation and testing that encourages and builds these “skills”, I am certainly open to the possibility. I would be very interested in your perspective.

      In particular, it is nice to say that students should be tested in a way that produces a certain outcome. It is another thing altogether do describe a possibility of that “way”.


  2. Shawn, I see the same problem in Mexico, but for different reasons…books are for most people an extra and expensive cost that makes them unattainable. I teach EFL in a public university, and in these ENglish classes are students from all schools, engineering, nursing, economics, business, etc. Most of them say that the obligatory graded reader they must read to accompany each class is the first book they have read in many years. Sigh!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I once read an article, will try to locate it, about a teacher in NYC Chinatown who also could not get his students to read. So he gave them very specific directions. Every two days he required students to disucss what they had read, but relating it to their own lives. I’m sorry, I don’t even remember the name of the book they were reading. Their discussion room was an IM, which they had to bring in a printed copy of (one per group). Although their language production was atrocious (IM type) they were able to really get down to some good discussion. The teacher then would then bring up in class the outstanding points the students brought up in their chatrooms, without mentioning the authors.

    He stated it was the way he got his students back to literacy, and now look forward to reading chatting. I thought I would share this and will look for the article.

    • Hi Ellen,

      I sympathize with your sigh.

      Thank you for the great example of effective teaching and coaxing. It is nice to hear success stories where the students definitely gain life-long appreciation and interest in a subject.

      It is so simple, at least in summary, sometimes.

      The students I encounter are good readers and good writers when they are required to read and write. I have corrected many of their written responses to what they have read, and I see improvement with each reflection I correct.

      But they seem to have trouble reading a work (novel, magazine, comic book, or similar poetry or prose) of their own choosing during 10-minute long reading periods or at home. They complain that the books they read in class are boring, yet they are reluctant to read books they choose. Reading for fun seems to be a joke.

      I think people in Canada, particularly students, take a lot of what they have unlimited access to for granted. Since there is always the potential to do these things in their futures, they do other things instead.

      This is natural, particularly when such freedoms are apparently unthreatened, and indeed our country sacrificed much so that these freedoms are indeed accessible. So taking such freedoms for granted is not surprising, even if it is sad. (I discussed this in my first post.)

      The part of my current post which most horrified me was that, whether intentional or not, reading was associated with punishment for these students. This takes reading to the opposite extreme of always-there-to-do to do-because-you-angered-me. It is important for students to want to functionally read and write to thrive in our cultures (local, national, foreign and global), so punishing them with reading is detrimental and potentially irreversibly hurtful.

      And I love my students too much not to care, even while I am forced to play the role of dictator.

      I appreciate your comment.

      Thank you,

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