The Ghana Education Service has, in recent years, repeatedly issued bans on the use of corporal punishment in public and private basic and second cycle schools in Ghana. The need to repeatedly issue the same ban every year is one I may address in another post at a later date.
Corporal punishment has been the disciplinary tool favored most especially by public primary and secondary schools in Ghana for as long as I can remember. Some teachers swear by its effectiveness. In the first 6 weeks in 2018, I carried out a teaching sequence to investigate the effectiveness and importance of the use of corporal punishment in a public school in Accra and if it was relevant to the teaching-learning environment in the classroom, and in the school in general.
As a teacher in Denmark, I acknowledge that my education in this professional field is standard in the country i find myself working in and not necessarily in others. Guided by Skinner’s Operant Conditioning as my major theoretical resource, I carried out English and Mathematics lessons within this 6-week period. The teaching method each week was varied so as to experiment with what worked and what didn’t with pupils in such large class sizes.
On average, class sizes in public primary schools in Ghana range from 50 to 80 pupils per class, and about 200 pupils per year. Teachers have to figure out how to effectively teach such large numbers with the limited resources that they have. Teachers have no support from the authorities in relation to teaching materials, etc. Their salaries are way below what their colleagues in other countries make and their profession is one of the least respected.
Operant Conditioning is a behavioral theory formulated by Skinner, who believed that one should focus on the external, observable causes of behavior, rather than try to unpack the internal thoughts and motivations. Operant Conditioning can be described as a process that attempts to modify behavior through the use of positive and negative reinforcements. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence.
Reinforcement is responsible for response strengthening – increasing the rate of responding or making responses more likely to occur. A reinforcer or reinforcing stimulus, is any stimulus or event that leads to response strengthening. Reinforcers are defined based on their effects, which do not depend upon mental processes such as consciousness, intentions, or goals. Because reinforcers are defined by their effects, they cannot be determined in advance.
Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are given to the individual after the desired behavior. This may come in the form of praise, rewards, etc.
Negative reinforcers typically are characterized by the removal of an undesired or unpleasant outcome after the desired behavior. A response is strengthened as something considered negative is removed. The goal in both of these cases of reinforcement is for the behavior to increase.
Punishment, in contrast, is when the increase of something undesirable attempts to cause a decrease in the behavior that follows. It suppresses a response but does not eliminate it; when the threat of punishment is removed, the punished response may return.
Positive punishment is when unfavorable events or outcomes are given in order to weaken the response that follows. Negative punishment occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed after an undesired behavior occurs. The goal in both of these cases of punishment is for the behavior to decrease.
With this in mind, I tried to alter the conditioning the pupils had of expecting to be caned for every mistake. It took a few tries. I initially tried to incorporate negative punishment by sending a misbehaving pupil out of an active lesson. Since they were used to positive punishment, I figured that this might help alter the behavior. However, this did not work. The pupils used the time out of the classroom to wander aimlessly around the compound. I therefore changed tactics and introduced positive reinforcement by openly acknowledging well behaved pupils in my lessons and rewarding them with books, fidget spinners, stationery, etc. This worked in altering the behavior of most of the pupils who also wanted these items that they typically would not be able to afford on their own.
It is 2019 and we need to take steps as parents, teachers, siblings and stakeholders in education to ensure that we equip students with a curiosity for learning and a need to acquire 21st century skills and problem-solving skills instead of using medieval tactics to scare pupils from acquiring relevant knowledge in the educational system.