Thursday, December 16, 2010

Support first, learned helplessness second

Few years ago when a student had a question in my class, I would tell them the answer.  Telling answers, providing solutions, and informing students was the way I would teach.  Recently I have realized, as a true educator, I should not be telling, providing, or informing, but in fact facilitating learners in my class.  I no longer want to be an instructor of information, but in fact a facilitator of education.
When we, as teachers, grab the pencil/pen from the students’ hands, or complete a task for a student we are perpetuating a single idea; “Learned helplessness”.  Learned helplessness is defined as:
a condition wherein a person believes that no matter how hard he or she tries, failure will result.
This condition is being enhanced by environments were tasks are completed for students.  Some educators will say “finishing the questions for the students need to be done, due to time constraints”.  However, constantly “finishing questions” is creating a condition in the students’ mind that they are incapable of thinking on their own.  They will start to actually believe that there are inadequate to achieve success in certain areas. 
This, unfortunately, will result with students becoming reluctant or even scared to complete challenging tasks.  To some, learned helplessness will appear as being lazy, or bored, but I truly believe that students crave reasonable expectations from others, and want to live up to these expectations.  Saying that, if we have great expectations from students we will witness great things, but if our expectations are low then consequently little learning will result.
Here are several tips for combating learned helplessness:
·         set high expectations for your students
·         let your students know that you see them as capable individuals
·         encourage your students to try it on their own
·         provide multiple opportunities for student trials
·         positively reinforce the student's efforts
·         if completing the entire task is not a possibility, encourage the student to complete the parts that he or she can do
·         encourage the student to try a bit more with each success
·         if you must complete a task due to time constraints, let the student know that he or she will be expected to do the task when time is not an issue
·         allow your students to see you struggle with a difficult task
Students need to be challenged, empowered, and congratulated, but not told, informed, or provided with answers.  Once students have the support, learned helplessness will be abolished.


  1. Amen! I sometimes call that "helicopter teaching", and we all know what most teachers think about "helicopter parents." I've asked my students which is more important - getting the answer right but not understanding the concept, or eventually understanding the concept even if you missed it on the assignment/project/quiz/test/whatever. They know that one is more important for the "game of school" and the other the one that really should matter.

  2. It would also be helpful to be aware that some students, based on family history or other issues may already be struggling with learned helplessness.