How to create a helpless student

Roo Stenning (@therealmrroo) recently directed me to a 2014 blog post from John Tomsett (@johntomsett), relating to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’. Interestingly, I’d been thinking about this particular concept for a while and had even swapped a couple of tweets concerning its nature with John’s partner in crime Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish).LH1

John suggested that teachers might be responsible for instilling feelings of helplessness in students by inundating them revision sessions, catch-up lessons and other interventions. My own interpretation is similar (although primarily related to day-to-day resilience) in that we often create an environment of over-dependence where our students become unable to consider ways in which they can contribute to their own learning in the absence of outside assistance.

So what is learned helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s. Seligman discovered that dogs that had been subjected to inescapable pain (administered through electric shocks) would later accept their fate even when given a means of escape. Seligman’s work, although ethically questionable, went on to inform much of our current understanding of the nature of depression – when bad things keep happening to us, we eventually give up searching for the good and, instead, accept our ‘fate’.

Are our students helpless?

It might seem like a bit of leap from depression to the classroom, but such behaviourist assumptions can be applied to student motivation. Take, for example, the student who consistently performs badly on tests – bad results become the norm and no end of interventions will alter these negative attributions – they were a failure yesterday, they are a failure today and they will still be failure tomorrow. In such circumstances, the student learns that nothing they do can change the situation; there is little point in engaging in interventions and little point in revising for exams. There are, of course, many complex variables at play here and we can’t reject the influence of other factors such as poverty, gender and an individuals propensity towards self-handicapping.

Tied up within the learned helplessness construct is the issue of dependency. As teachers we have a tendency to claim that we are in the business of creating ‘independent learners’ yet in reality we appear to practice the opposite. Take, for example, my recent conversation with a year 13 student attending a revision session for AS re-sits.

Student: “Sir, can you do us a list of all the studies that we need to know for the exam?”

Me: “Couldn’t you do that yourself as part of your revision?”

Student: “Oh yes, never thought of that”.

By the time our students begin their A-levels they have become dependent on us as teachers – they no longer know how to be independent learners and no end of badgering will make a difference – dependency is something they have learned and learned well. Take away the interventions, the revision classes and, dare I say, the ‘spoon feeding’ and they become lost in an unknown wilderness with no map to guide them home.

So what can be done?

This is a very difficult question. In the mad scramble to ensure exam success, there is a tendency to increase dependency. I currently run several ‘interventions’ each week, the contents of which involve coaching students on how to answer exam questions. Those who fail to attend are the most likely to harbour feelings of helplessness (‘what’s the point of attending if I’m just going to fail anyway’) and there is always the faint whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Behavioural psychology and the principles underlying behavioural economics might have a role to play here (as might some of the principles from positive psychology – Seligman’s more recent endeavour). There is also certainly a role for established models of motivation and self-regulation (think Self-Determination Theory).

What is evident is that there can be no quick fix. Dependency and learned helplessness form over time and alter an individual’s cognitive set. The trick is to ensure that the school environment promotes independence and self-regulation rather than stifling it. How we do this is the big question. The question really needs to be asked and the answer thoroughly investigated.

4 thoughts on “How to create a helpless student

  1. whatonomy

    Very interesting blog. Learned helplessness is bound up with overuse of extrinsic motivation and high-stakes testing (as you say). The question is: what can we measure to show independent inquiry and acquired knowledge? And can we measure these things without distorting what we analyse? Assessing independence would seem to be a quick answer since it would clearly signal that we are serious about it. But, as ever, it is the means of assessment (usually as cheap as it can be) that ‘wags the dog’ and corrupts the learning intention.
    The difficult & expensive answer IMHO is that assessments are coursework-based & involve a higher degree of student-generated inquiry (along the lines of IB extended essay). Primary schools are actually pretty good at this – with PYP, International Primary Curriculum and powerful uses of simulation such as Mantle of the Expert. How could we maintain this exploratory ethos through KS3 and beyond very much hinges on the nature of the final assessments. If those assessments were spread across KS3 and 4, were more student-directed and purposeful, then students would emerge with greater autonomy and a research orientation.
    However, the two counters to the above are that such a form of assessment would be expensive and risky. What if, in giving greater freedom to students, they don’t acquire the knowledge that you think they need for the next stage?
    The answer to that lies in quality of curriculum and planning – and giving teachers the time & space to reflect on curricula, planning purposeful inquiry that can still hit the right knowledge buttons.
    Oh, and by the way, I hope that Seligman is planning a ‘dog atonement’ research project in which he returns to those very same dogs a measure of self-esteem and happiness. He really does need a tap on the nose for such naughty research.

  2. Pingback: Education Panorama (April ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

  3. tgillat

    Whatonomy – I’m not sure which primary schools you’ve been to recently but I would say spoonfeeding is prevalent everywhere in the education system and if you are having to do so much in KS3 and 4 its because they learnt to depend much earlier than that!!!

    The mix of factors in primary school:
    a) Need to show progress in every lesson – no child is allowed to fail because if they do it will hurt their self esteem. However, if this also means not extending them (some claim they do it but its rubbish really you can’t give them ‘appropriate work’ and extend them at exactly the same time and neither can one adult support and extend 30 children. I’m not fooled by the bluffers thought they do talk the talk).
    b) Many adults in primary school need to be ‘needed’ – its a recruitment thing too.
    c) Parents blame the teacher if their child fails – boring narrative that sees their child spoon fed to produce artificial results.
    d) The system is at odds with itself – don’t want to do anything academic too early because it will harm the self esteem of the lower ability children, then test them in Year 2, don’t do anything else to harm their self esteem, then spend an entire year hothousing them for KS2 SATs.
    e) If the anti-academics stopped running the show in Primary it would be better for all – I’m still not sure why people who failed academically should be allowed to teach..surely they are ingrained against the system. If they think children should just play then what is the point of them being at school?
    f) People having to constantly compensate for the failures of the spoon feeding approach only to find one year is not enough.

    There is so much dishonesty in all of this – the education system has infact become a baby-sitting system and there are too many who like this state of affairs as it makes their lives easier.


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