George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Young girl resting her head in her hand looking perplexed

We all have students that just want to "get it right." We all have students that constantly seek the attention of the teacher. "Did I get this right?" "Is this what you want?" Now while it's certainly a good thing to affirm students in their learning, many times we want students to be creative with their learning. We allow them to own their learning and create assessment products where they can show us what they know in new and inventive ways. Because of this, there isn't "one right answer," yet our students are often trained to think that there can be only one.

Similarly, we want students to be reflective, to ask themselves, "How do I know if I'm on the right track?" or "What could I do next?" Instead of coming immediately to the teacher, we want students to experiment on their own. Many of us wonder why students constantly do the opposite instead. I've got news for you. It's our fault. We, as educators, are often responsible for learned helplessness, and we have a responsibility to change it! How can we empower our students to be self-directed learners?

Curate and Create Learning Resources

If we want to have students seek out other information from sources other than the teacher, then we must make sure those resources are available. Many teachers using the flipped classroom approach already have created or found these kinds of resources. However, think broadly about the word resource. People are resources, texts are resources, and community organizations are resources -- to name just a few categories. We have to be comfortable not always knowing the answer, and instead suggesting we find the answer together through the vast amount of learning resources that we have at our disposal. Try curating these resources before, during, and after a unit. Work with students as well to create a culture where the answers are everywhere.

Questions "For" (Not "About") Learning

What do I mean by this? Instead of using questions to check for understanding and getting the right answer, we can use questions to probe students' thinking and push them to think about their learning. Questions can serve as powerful redirection tools that promote metacognition. Instead of responding with "Yes" or "No," ask a student, "Why do you think that?" If you notice an error or gap in learning, try using questions that push the student to think:

  • What else could you try?
  • Have you experimented with another idea?
  • Why do you think this is true?

Questions are powerful tools for helping students own the process of learning.

Stop Giving Answers

Often, when a student fails or makes mistakes, we want to fly in like a superhero and give the answer. "This is what you need to do." We come to save the day, and pat ourselves on the back for being a great teacher. In fact, we may have done that student a disservice. This doesn't come from a bad place, or suggest that we're bad at teaching. On the contrary, we care for our students, so we want to help them whenever we can. Ask yourself this: By helping that student, will he or she own the learning, or are you doing the learning for him or her? This means that sometimes we need to get out of the way. If students are working in teams, for example, and are arguing (safely) about what to do next, we need to let them solve the problem on their own and then check in. "I heard an argument. Did you guys figure it out? Great work at problem solving!" Of course, if students are floundering, and failure is not productive, by all means step in. But also feel free to allow yourself wait time before you do so!

Allow for Failure

I firmly believe that failure is a powerful learning tool, but we have to make sure that we create a culture where it is OK to fail forward. Do you grade everything? If so, you may not be communicating that it's OK to fail. Do you allow for multiple drafts and revisions and demand high-quality products? If so, you are communicating to students that they have multiple tries to learn and, more importantly, that they can be creative and experiment. In addition, we should be there to support students when they do fail, and to help get them back on the right track.

We need to take responsibility for empowering our students, and to scaffold the process of self-direction. Self-direction doesn't happen overnight, especially, when many of our students, based on specific structures of schooling, are trained to be helpless. Although we can take steps as individual educators to avoid learned helplessness, we need to reexamine the systems of schooling, from curriculum to assessment and instruction, to allow for empowerment rather than always getting the right answer.

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Lee Varty's picture
Lee Varty
Junior high teacher in a rural Alberta school

We're working to flip our classrooms, and it's quite the task to teach the students to look at alternate sources for assistance, especially to get them to go back to their learning guides and review what is in there. They want the easy answers, just so many of us do. Definitely a work in progress that needs to start when the kids are young.

Thanks for this!

Ashley Gomez's picture
Ashley Gomez
Former Community Engagement & Social Media Marketing Intern

Great article! I really liked the line "Questions are powerful tools for helping students own the process of learning", it reminded me of the Albert Einstein quote "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." I think always questioning the answers we get, as well looking for different approaches and resources to the achieve that answer in the first place is a key way to to keep learning interesting, productive, and fun! While sometimes it is easy to just take the uncomplicated approach, I feel that my education and learning really grew when I looked for other, sometimes more difficult, answers. Although as a student I felt more 'helpless' at the time, I always felt more empowered and satisfied in the end :)

KATI VARELA's picture
Languages teacher

My own recent experience with giving students autonomy ( has been met with lots of resistance from a lot of them but also frustration from some of the parents. I realised the process definitely takes times and requires a concerted effort and agreement among all the 'players'. Parents also need to be on board and support this endeavour. I learned that involving them ahead of time can certainly be beneficial.
In any case, it would be worth considering that resistance to change is natural, even more when what is asked involves more active work. It is part of the process and we all need to trust it is the most beneficial path to take and be resilient. Explaining the benefits should help in the meantime. The rewards might only come in a longer term. Patience and trust are key in the process.

Evy Roy's picture
Evy Roy
Former Community and Social Media Intern at Edutopia

Kati, Your blog post really resonates with me. I think you're right--success with technology and new curricula won't come instantaneously. Students will be frustrated and angry they don't "get it" right away, just as you'll be frustrated they don't like it right away. Patience is key (as you said) and feedback is important, so I'd bet students just need some time to acclimate to these new tools. Good luck!

A.Robs's picture

I really enjoyed this article. I agree that many times teachers want to be the superhero and immediately help/give students the answers. It is important the let them struggle through it. This is probably especially difficult for students to accept at first, but once the learning environment is established, students will adapt.

Kay Butler's picture
Kay Butler
HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

In my attempt to promote independence and self-confidence in my mathematics students, I try to teach my kids to come up with multiple ways of justifying solutions to problems - they are instructed to "convince me" instead of my telling them whether or not their answers are correct. I also teach them that mistakes are opportunities to learn - deeper learning often occurs as the result of making, analyzing, and understanding errors. I saw the following posted on fb and loved it - wish I would have saved the picture! I definitely plan on making this into a poster for my classroom! :) FAIL: First Attempt In Learning

ConnectEdProf's picture

I'm in full support of the suggestions in this article. I think the most challenging part of our work as educators and youth advocates will be to guide appropriate feedback on learning when state-level assessments will result in high rates of [false] failure. How can we collectively curb the learned helplessness that is likely to hit when millions of children will receive score reports that indicate "failure to meet standards for being on track to college and career" on computerized assessments that should never have been administered nor released prior to vetting for validity? I am genuinely interested to hear from anyone who has explored the following questions and who may have ideas for how to support students and parents given the current situation:

Guest's picture

Loved this piece. I am an elementary art teacher and am starting TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) this year in my classroom. Some people refer to it as Choice Art. It is a student directed style of teaching as the students pick their own projects and their own media to work with. This article helps to reaffirm that I am going in the right direction.

Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

I posted this in the general comments but specifically wanted to reply to you Kati to encourage you!

One of the challenges we have as time constrained teachers is allowing the space for students to struggle. And despite our best intentions, we also frequently train students to be obsessed about the right answer instead of focusing on understanding the ideas and processes which lead to those answers. As a high school math teacher I've created collaborative investigations that have lots of open-ended questions, as well as questions which challenge students to articulate their understanding. With these materials I've tried to create a space for students to try hard, to make mistakes, to improve on their understanding and to define their success beyond the boundaries of a particular math problem. Kati Varela's struggles resonate with me because I've been through them too, and I know that anyone who goes down this road needs to train students and parents to embrace the struggle. At the end of the year you'll see results!

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