Education by punishment
Something I started noticing a while ago is that our default approach to education is to punish people for lacking the skills we expect them to have. This is what I call education by punishment.
Once I started seeing this, it’s hard to unsee, and I’m going to inflict that on you now. Sorry.
For once when I’m objecting to education, this mostly isn’t going to be me complaining about school. School certainly has problems in this regard, but by and large school is at least trying to do the right thing here, even if it’s often failing.
The basic conditions for education by punishment are this:
There is some set of skills that we consider necessary for people to possess (either universally or in a particular context).
We will not help people acquire them, but we will punish them for lacking them.
Those punishments do not contain useful, actionable, feedback that the “students” can use to improve.
Importantly, education by punishment is something done collectively. It is not a thing done by individuals, but by groups of people who are often acting in individually reasonable ways. It is a disparity between individuals’ obligation to the collective (that they possess such skills) and the collective’s obligation to the individual (they feel there is no group responsibility to provide those skills). Individuals participate in it, but mere individual behaviour is not usually sufficient to count as education by punishment.1
Almost all education has an element of punishment in it (even if it’s just withholding desired positive feedback). The distinguishing feature of education by punishment is that punishment is the only tool being used, and that it does not contain within it any form of useful instruction.
Education by punishment is, unfortunately, extremely common, and tends to be our default mode of education for anything that isn’t explicitly on a school curriculum somewhere.
Learning social skills
Remember the classes on social skills you got as a kid? Those lessons where they sat you down, explained how people worked and how you should treat them, gave some examples, walked you through some exercises, and gave you precise and actionable feedback on how to improve your behaviour?
Yeah, me neither.
Now, don’t get me wrong, school’s classes on social skills would have been terrible. I know this, you know this. The typical teacher’s grasp on the interpersonal dynamics of children and what to do about them borders on the criminally incompetent,2 and the curriculum would be designed by very nice well meaning people who didn’t have the first clue about what students actually needed. I’m not arguing that such classes should exist, I’m arguing that the lack of them is telling for our willingness to educate people in their social development.
The actual education in social skills you get is my central example of education by punishment. If you are failing at some social skill, you will get punished for it by other people thinking you’re weird and unpleasant to be around. The best case scenario is they do this by exclusion, the worst case by more active bullying.
If you’re only a little bad at social skills - not bad enough to be excluded - you can improve at them through trial, error, and emulation, and people do get better this way (it seems to take an inordinately long time, but it does work), but if you’ve got any major deficiency in your social skills, we provide no mechanism for fixing that, we just punish you for not having fixed it yourself.
This is particularly rough if for whatever reason it’s unusually hard for you to learn the relevant social skills. Neurodivergence, different cultural background, etc. can mean you have a lot more to learn than your peers, and chances are good that doesn’t mean you’ll learn more, you’ll just get punished more.
This is true at pretty much every level, it’s not just a childhood thing. If anything it’s worse if you make it to adulthood with missing social skills, because you’re treated as morally culpable for not having learned them already. You see this particularly around e.g. dating advice, where being bad at dating is treated as some sort of moral flaw that you should be punished for.
Education by punishment at work
Work is another central example of education by punishment, and this starts at the interview process. Interviewing is a perfect example of education by punishment, because if you are bad at interviewing you get almost no feedback about why you’re not getting the jobs you’re applying to. You are punished by the rejection, but the person rejecting you gives you almost no helpful information that would lead you to become better, either at interviewing or your job.
You see similar behaviour with people who are struggling in their jobs. Sometimes they’ll get help to do better, but often this looks like being put on a personal improvement plan, which is all-too-often a figleaf to pretend that they tried to help you improve before they fire you.
Back to interviewing, this leads to an important consideration: Is not rewarding someone the same as punishing them? i.e. can not giving someone a job really count as punishing them?
The answer is: Individually no (unless they have a reasonable expectation of being rewarded), but collectively yes. The punishment is not the individual rejection from an interview, but that we have arranged society to make your life much worse if you don’t have a job and then made it much harder for you to find a job.
This results in a pattern that comes up over and over again: Education by punishment is not something that individual people are necessarily deliberately participating in, and may not be something they’re even individually culpable for, but the aggregate effect is the same.
Education by operant conditioning
There is a “good” version of education by punishment (it has some significant problems, but it at least succeeds on its own terms), which is education by operant conditioning. It’s worth understanding how this works in order to understand just how badly education by punishment fails.
Education by operant conditioning’s basic model is that you provide positive reinforcement when the student does something more like what you want, and possibly negative reinforcement when they fail to.
Key to the success of this approach are:
Partial success is rewarded. You start from wherever the student is, and you reward small improvements in the direction you want them to go.
Rewards are specific - the behaviour that is being rewarded (or punished) is specifically localised so that the student know what they did well.
The central example of this sort of education by operant conditioning is clicker training. When they do the behaviour you want to reward, you instantly press a button on your clicker (which makes a loud clicking noise), or clap or provide some other indicator. This then serves as a signal that you are going to provide them with a reward, which you should then reliably do.
Clicker training is most commonly used for animals, but it’s also useful for humans. Here’s an example of using it to teach kids to high jump:
(This is more than just clicker training, because it has some important additional features and is part of a system called TAGteach. But the clicker reward is an important component of it).
Crucially, this kind of training can only amplify behaviours that the student can already exhibit. The idea is to take a behaviour that the student exhibits erratically, and teach them to exhibit it consistently through a series of rewards.
As a result, in education by operant conditioning you are not rewarding or punishing the student based on whether or not they are exhibiting the final behaviour you want them to learn, you are rewarding or punishing based on whether they exhibit their current step in the right direction. You provide them a smooth slope from their current behaviour to the final result you want them to achieve, guiding them through the fully general system for learning to do hard things by giving them feedback on their current behaviour.
Education by punishment in contrast operates on a more or less binary level of punishment - if you fail a little the punishment might be mild, but if you are very far from the desired end state then people don’t point you in the right direction, they just tell you to be better at your job or stop being such a weirdo. There is no slope provided to help you gradually improve in the useful direction, only a blanket punishment for the fact that you are not there already. This offers no guidance for navigating your way to actually learning the lesson.
Another critical feature of education by operant conditioning that is not normally emphasised is that you do not generally apply negative reinforcement by permanently crippling the student, or by otherwise making it harder to learn the skill. The reason this is not normally emphasised is because Jesus Christ, why do you need to be told that?
And yet, this is a pretty common feature of education by punishment. Once you’ve been deemed lacking in the social skills, you get a bad reputation, and you’re denied further opportunities to improve those skills. More, you’ll often develop some significant emotional problems over social interaction (e.g. children who got bullied at school generally grow up to be socially anxious adults, which makes it much harder to subsequently develop their social skills. Ask me how I know etc.)
Education as punishment
The social anxiety case is unfortunately the typical consequence of education by punishment, not an occasional side effect.
One of the problems with education by punishment is that it leaves its recipients with significant emotional scarring, because what happens when you are subject to education by punishment is that people do get better, right up until they come to a hurdle in learning, at which point they stop being able to progress on their own.
Naturally, this does not stop the punishment. You’re still bad at the thing, people still punish you for being bad at it, but you have no way to improve and everybody treats it as your responsibility to figure out how to improve and is unwilling to help you.
This is basically a perfect recipe for creating a deep shame around the subject.
Unfortunately a consequence of that is that all attempts at education around it become a form of punishment once you’ve been on the receiving end of enough education by punishment, because every attempt to put you in contact with the subjects and your failings at it triggers this shame.
This triggering can take different forms - sometimes people get angry at you, sometimes they adamantly deny that they could have any faults in this space, sometimes they just get too anxious to function.
This is something you see even in subjects where education is not purely punishment based. e.g. people tend to feel this way about mathematics because at some point in their education they got stuck at a hurdle and rather than helping them clear it the education system just shoved them up against it and pushed hard and then when that somehow didn’t work told them they could never learn to clear it.
The consequence of all of this is that education by punishment is really hard to walk back once it gets entrenched, because you can’t just not do it, you have to actively work to undo its harms, and provide people with a learning environment which they won’t experience as punishing.
This is, I think, part of why it’s very hard to walk back education by punishment at work. Personal Improvement Plans and the like should be a good thing, but it’s very hard to put someone on a PIP without them experiencing it as a punishment, and this tends to turn into a self fulfilling prophecy - if PIPs never go well, you stop putting in the effort that would allow them to go well, and eventually they just become a form of punishment in fact if not in name.
Why is education by punishment so common?
Education by punishment works in a very limited sense: It ensures everyone around you is educated, because the people who aren’t leave. Either you deliberately exclude them, or they drift away because you are too unpleasant to be around. The real goal of most individual people’s education by punishment strategy isn’t to make you better, it’s to make you go away.
On top of this, education by punishment is easy. Actually helping people get better is so hard, and this is compounded by the fact that many people who could use the help would reject it, probably angrily. In contrast, education by punishment lets you make it entirely their problem.
The result is that education by punishment so often ends up being our default interaction with strangers, because we feel we owe them nothing, and we do not want to expend the effort or risk the consequences of doing something that would actually help.
I cannot truly fault people at the individual level for doing this, and I’ve certainly done it myself - I get angry at people on the internet for things that are almost certainly errors rather than malice, I disengage from awkward people at conferences, etc. I downgrade friendships silently sometimes. I try to provide helpful feedback but it is, as mentioned, hard, and I certainly don’t always succeed.
But even if I can’t fault people for this individually, collectively it amounts to a massive failure in our responsibilities to others, because it abandons people who are unable to learn the things we require of them on their own.
Where I can fault people for this (without being 100% innocent of it myself) is in their treatment of people they actually know. Especially friends and family, but also weaker but still important ties like colleagues. It’s easier and safer to let people struggle and treat it as their own failing than it is to try to help them. This is far from universal, but it’s much more common than I’d like.
I could speculate wildly about what’s wrong with society that leads to this behaviour, but I’m probably a little too angry about the whole thing to really be objective about it, so instead I’m going to describe the proximate causes: Ignorance, incompetence, selfishness, and cowardice. Either it doesn’t occur to us to help, we do not know how to help, we do not think we owe help to others, or we are afraid to provide it.
This is a collective problem and it ultimately needs to be solved collectively, but the ultimate collective solution is going to involve lots of people individually providing their help, so you might as well start there.
It’s hard, and arguably less useful, to do this with strangers, so start with those close to you. This won’t reach the people who most need it, who were probably long ago excluded from your reach, but it’s a good start.
How do you start doing that?
Well, it’s simple but not easy. You say to them “Hey, I’ve noticed (problem). Would you like some help with that?” and if they say yes you sit down and have a chat with them about their problems and help get them unstuck.
Might this go badly? Yes, absolutely. People will not always react well to this. Worse, they might say yes and be a huge amount of work to help. This isn’t easy, and it requires courage, but it’s the only way out.
Recovering from punishment
So what do you do if (when) you’ve been on the receiving end of this?
Honestly, I’m still figuring this out. I’d love some tips if you’ve got any.
I think recognising the problem is a good start. Often when you’ve been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment you internalise this as some sort of massive failing on your part. This isn’t the case. You just hit a hurdle, and the strategy for “teaching” you to overcome that hurdle that society adopts is dreadful and can’t possibly work.
That hurdle might have been due to something intrinsic to you, certainly, but I think getting good at things is usually pretty achievable, sometimes you just have to work harder when the world you’re in wasn’t designed for people like you. Treating things as fundamentally knowable and hurdles as possible to overcome allows you to put in that work.
Often the best way to do this is to talk to a friend who seems to be better at this than you and ask them for help. People are often surprisingly willing to help once they know that you want it - it’s the initial offering that is hard. It also helps to offer such help to others in turn.
Much of this requires confronting challenging feelings of course. Be gentle with them, but don’t let them stop you.
Some things I’ve written about learning in the past that might be helpful for trying to get better at education by punishment skills:
How to do hard things (my general theory of skill development)
If you’re trying to help people out with these issues I can recommend:
Also if you’re having difficulty with the emotional side of this, I’d recommend my Labelling Feelings 101 as a good starting point.
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The image of a school classroom comes from the Boston City Archives, who have released it under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
You can definitely come up with examples where individuals are engaged in education by punishment on their own, but it requires that individuals have sufficient control of the context to set its norms. Examples include the behaviour of bosses - who have enough power over their workplace to set its norms - or people in romantic relationships - who have a sufficiently specific context that they can set their expectations of a partner unilaterally.
Teachers reading this, please don’t #NotAllTeachers me. I’m sure you, personally, are fine, but this is pretty consistently experience of children who experience bullying at school.