A group of boys was asked to copy a Chinese passage five times. When it was completed, it came to about 15 to 16 foolscap pages. The exercise was not only tedious but also punishing. What’s more – it had nothing to do with the learning of the language.

The copying assignment – which had to be done within three days – was meant to punish the group as none would own up or blow the whistle on an offence: Whistling in class.

As I was in the group, I can say from experience that the writing task is an effective form of punishment. It can hurt anyone who has to do it – physically, mentally and emotionally.

I am not about to take the teacher to task although I think he should not have punished us if he could not identify the culprit. I am sure he meant well but I question the mode of punishment.

I understand that discipline is necessary. It is meant to help in the development of the individual. But how does writing a passage as a form of punishment help in the development of a person?

It is a waste of time because the time spent on writing the task can be better used on more productive work. And since it gives the impression that writing Chinese characters is a punishment, it makes the person hate the language.

When a pupil breaks a rule, he has to be corrected in such a way that he can appreciate he is responsible for his actions. Appropriate punishment must be given. Otherwise, it is meaningless.

In some schools, recalcitrant students who disrupt a class by talking are detained after school hours. What do they do during detention? As they have nothing to do, they are allowed to talk more!

How does detention help to correct their misbehaviour? Perhaps the idea is to let them talk until they are tired of talking.

My other concern is the inconsistency of the application of disciplinary actions. It varies from school to school; class to class; and even within the class.

With some lenient teachers, submission of homework on time is not crucial. Students will just be reminded to do so in the future despite having been told the same things many times before. For others, failure to do so is an offence and students will be punished. How? It depends on the creativity of the teachers.

Some teachers will order the students to complete their homework outside the class while the lesson is on. That is real punishment. They have to do their homework standing up with the wall as their table and also miss the lesson for the day. What message is the student supposed to receive?

I believe discipline in schools is critical. Without it, there will be chaos. If classes are continuously disrupted, students are perpetually inattentive and teachers are highly demoralized, it is everyone’s loss.

But discipline – of which punishment is an integral component – should be administered consistently and meaningfully to be helpful.

Punishment should not be retributive. It should be given in the best interests of the students who have run foul of the school rules.

Although schools have the autonomy to decide on disciplinary matters, I would like to suggest that the Ministry of Education also review the current guidelines so that students will not feel that disciplinary actions are taken unreasonably, unjustly and inconsistently.

While the ministry and schools are at it, they may wish to consider a reward system to encourage outstanding behaviour.

Having the students’ conduct graded and reflected in their report books is not enough. Most students need good role models. Some need to be praised publicly to become better students; others want outstanding conduct to be recognized so that they can be encouraged to behave well.

Now, students are watched closely for their indiscipline. How about watching them for their exemplary qualities for a change?

(This article is printed in the TODAY newspaper on 17 March 2005.)