Past, Present, and Future (of learning)

Adults from the old school often wonder why psychologists consider many traditional practices at school as unhealthy for children’s social-emotional well being. Additionally, psychologists use research-based empirical data to convince educators to move away from controlling children through coercion, punishment, threat, and fear to get things done. Instead, psychologists have provided alternatives such as positive reinforcement, point system, behavioral contracts, counseling, etc. to effectively approach idiosyncrasies in behavior and learning.

Because of this shift in thinking, the incidences of administering harsh punishment to children have progressively and significantly reduced over the past few decades. This is evident in the way children are treated at school in the 21st century. More and more teachers and administrators display a sense of respect and appreciation for students. In other words, children are treated more humanely than any other time in the history of education!

What’s wrong with being harsh?

However, many adults are still convinced that harsh treatment has its own place in the process of educating children. The argument that adults often use to defend this position is one that most of us can identify with – “When I was a child, my father used to threaten to hang me upside down if I couldn’t recite any times table from 2 through 15,” “My teacher wouldn’t let me go for recess or eat anything the whole day if I didn’t keep quiet throughout his/her lesson,” and “I would be sent to a dark room if I don’t memorize the correct spelling of words.”

For many adults, threats and fear-evoking commands worked just as effectively as strategies proposed by psychologists because they produced desired behavioral and learning outcomes – memorization and recitation of times table, being quiet in the class and memorization and recall of correct spelling of words. Although adults accept the presence of adverse psychological consequences of using such threats and fear-evoking commands on children, they still consider them useful as ways to get things done!

It doesn’t work anymore

Despite harsh treatments from adults, children in the past did well in the school because all they needed to do was memorize and regurgitate information. Repetition and intense practice defined learning. Success at school was determined by the amount of knowledge one accumulated over time and presented when required. Hence, it was possible for children to be sad, terrified, and upset and still learn academic contents as well as acceptable behavior because they were programmed to associate a set of stimuli with a particular set of responses. As long as the combination of these two sets of stimuli and responses were correctly presented, children were rewarded; otherwise, they were punished.

This kind of behavioral and cognitive programming perfectly matched the needs of a work culture that required no thinking and creative problem solving. However, the 21st century demands a completely different kind of education. Children living in this century cannot afford to passively accumulate information and regurgitate them when necessary. Theirs is a world where learning is synonymous to thinking and education is synonymous to problem solving.

Science of thinking

Research in neuroscience and psychology indicate that negative emotions such as fear, sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, and worry drain mental energy and interfere with one’s ability to think clearly. Unhealthy emotions muddle thinking, make decisions difficult to reach, disrupt communication, reduce physical coordination, and make it harder to solve problems (a condition known as cognitive inhibition). On the other hand, healthy emotions lead to better performance and achievement, allow for more creativity and innovative problem solving, help in decision making, ease memory recall, and improve skill, precision, and coordination (a condition known as cognitive facilitation).

Children preparing for 21st century and beyond learn by thinking. The pre-requisite to thinking is positive, healthy emotions. It is the duty of every adult, whether parent, teacher, or administrator, to provide experiences that would enable children to be happy, before they delve into learning.