October 3, 2012

“Learned Helplessness” is a Disease, and it’s Contagious

A disease is spreading.  It’s called “learned helplessness” and  as educators, we can stop it.

We inherently know that as individuals we learn by doing.  Yes, we need to listen to instruction and watch demonstrations, but at the end of the day we truly understand by being involved.  I say this because more and more I see students waiting for others to do for them.  When they reach a point of confusion in art class, they immediately want someone (i.e. an adult) to either help- or better- do it for them. That is the last thing we should do.

What I am suggesting is that as humans when we experience that small frustration- it is at that exact moment when we are learning.  The act of pushing through that frustration and coming out the other side with the answer is the act of learning.  It is imperative that students have these experiences.  Sometimes it is uncomfortable, but it reinforces that fact that if we strive and persevere, we can achieve.  It may sound like a bumper sticker, but it is true.   If we, as adults, constantly step in and do for them, we are doing them a disservice.

We do, however, need to help and encourage them through the process.  The following are some strategies I have used in class and they have worked.  Most of the time students can answer their own question.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Answer a question with a question.  Do not give in and give him/her the answer. Propose through the new question that they look at the problem in a different way. For example, you may say, “Did you think about…?”, or “What do you think you should do?”  or “What would be the logical next step?”  It’s amazing- about 90% of the time they come up with the right answer- all by themselves.


2. Show students where else to get information besides an adult. For example, if you have a student for which following directions is very difficult, show him/her where in the classroom the step by step directions are posted, and ask him/her to read it slowly and check to see if they did everything on the list.


3. Make students look at each other in a new way.  Most students think that the teacher is the only source of information in the room.  Besides the visual instructional materials, there are the other students.  If you have 25 children in your class, let them know that there are at least 24 other people to ask a question to before coming to you.

Children need to be empowered to get their own information and answer their own questions.  We must stop this disease. If we structure our lessons and teaching to encourage thoughtful reflection, we can.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.


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