Teaching Strategies

Avoiding Learned Helplessness

Some steps teachers can take to empower students to be self-directed learners.

May 11, 2015

We all have students who just want to get everything right. We all have students who constantly seek the attention of the teacher: “Did I get this right?” “Is this what you want?” While it’s good to affirm students in their learning, many times we want them to be creative with their learning. We want 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 partly 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 students to seek out information from sources other than the teacher, 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 need to be comfortable not always knowing the answer, and instead suggesting that 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.

Using Questions to Drive Learning

What do I mean by this? Instead of using questions to check for understanding—questions that have right and wrong answers—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. Ask students, “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. But 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: If you help 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!”

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.

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’s 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’re 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 have been trained through specific structures of their schooling 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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