This only thing remarkable about a recent study which showed that “52 percent of elementary and junior middle school pupils in Taiwan, around 1.45 million pupils, have experienced corporal punishment in school in the first half of this year,” is that the article about it also published the survey size and the margin of error. I did an informal survey in my education class this semester and every single student raised their hand to indicate that they had received corporal punishment at least once during their primary schooling.
Although my students are all quick to say that the problem with Taiwanese education is that it is based on cramming information (they use the term tian ya 填鴨 which means “force-feeding a duck”) rather than learning how to think critically, none of them saw anything wrong with hitting students. They all insisted that while not hitting students might work in other countries, it was part of Taiwanese culture and not allowing teachers to do so would make it difficult for them to function in the classroom.
Since I’ve been spending lots of time lately training Juno, our golden retriever, I shared with my students the current thinking about using punishment to train dogs, which is that it is simply not very effective and can have unintended consequences. The dog doesn’t really understand exactly why you hit it, but it will just know to be afraid. A dog who gets beaten for peeing on the carpet my not understand that peeing on the carpet is what brought on the punishment, since the transgression probably took place too long ago for the dog to remember the deed. Moreover, the dog probably is only getting caught and punished half the time, so it never fully makes the connection. On the other hand, the dog is very likely to become afraid of the owner, and maybe even some other environmental variable that is present at the time of the beating such as the keys the owner puts on the table before seeing the damage to the carpet.
A survey of over 300 studies conducted in the last sixty years came to a similar conclusion with regard to the effects of corporal punishment on human children. While “immediate compliance” increased with punishment, “internalization of moral rules” actually decreased, and “as the frequency and severity (abusiveness) of corporal punishment increases, so too does the risk for negative outcomes.”
I’m not saying Taiwanese students are like dogs, but I do think it is very likely that the teacher is not effectively teaching the student to behave in class so much as instilling a general fear of authority, a fear of making mistakes, of taking risks, of asking questions, etc. In the US studies have shown that victims of corporal punishment are much more likely to be “poor, male, of ethnic minority status, or live within specific regions.” This fits with the conclusions of Bowles and Gintis who argue that the educational system is designed so that poor students are trained to be obedient workers who respond to strict discipline, while wealthy students are trained to be independent minded critical thinkers using more experimental and student-centered teaching methods.
I would argue that it is simply not possible to foster the kind of education my students would like to see in Taiwan unless corporal punishment is abolished. But unfortunately it is going to be very difficult to break the vicious cycle.
More information can be found on the site of the Humanistic Education Foundation 財團法人人本教育文教基金會 which conducted the above-mentioned survey.