Combatting a Culture of Learned Helplessness

I led a training last week on blended learning and asked teachers to brainstorm the biggest challenges they face in the classroom. One answer resonated with me. “Learned helplessness.” On my drive home, I kept mentally returning to this phrase.

Then in my own classroom last week, my students were beginning a research project that would culminate in student presentations. We’ve done this type of task before, yet I was bombarded with questions: “Tucker, what should we title this?” “Tucker, how big should the font be?” “Tucker, how do we add an image to the background of our slide?”

I have a stock response I use in this situation, “Figure it out.” That may strike some teacher as harsh, but I disagree. Our students are conditioned from a young age to ask a teacher for help the minute something doesn’t go right or the moment they have a question. Where is the curiosity? Why don’t they want to figure it out themselves?

I cannot climb into my students backpacks and go home with them to field every inquiry they have, so why would I do it in the classroom? Students have to learn how to answer their own questions. More and more, I have come to feel that my main responsibility as an educator is not to teach students about literature, writing, vocabulary or grammar. My job is to teach them how to learn. If they know how to continue learning long after they leave my class, I have given them a gift that will make college, career paths, and life easier.

When students have questions, I ask them:

  1. Did you ask anyone else?
  2. Did you Google it?
  3. Have you searched YouTube for a tutorial?

Most students haven’t even bothered to Google a question before they ask me. This is shocking. Google is where I would go first if I had a question I could not answer. If my search results didn’t shed light on my question or problem, I’d turn to YouTube and watch video explanations or tutorials.

Teachers who want to cultivate curious life-long learners should stop and think before they answer student questions. Ask yourself, “Is this a question they could figure out for themselves?” If the answer is “Yes,” then let them struggle a little. The reward of answering their own questions is much more gratifying and help us to combat this culture of learned helplessness.

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69 Responses to Combatting a Culture of Learned Helplessness

  1. Linda Fermoyle Rice says:

    In the Los Angeles Times recently, there was an opinion piece about today’s culture of perks for employees. The author’s point of view was that “discomfort, and even a degree of hardship, are what drive creativity, not bean bag chairs and ping pong tables.” John Adams said, “genius is sorrow’s child.” A great many of our most well-recognized “geniuses” faced adversity – the loss of a parent at a young age or a physical disability.

    I applaud the realization that letting kids figure it out for themselves is as much a part of teaching as supplying children with information and it is far more important. It encourages the development of skills that will serve them well throughout life – as you point out. Bravo.

  2. Hi Catlin-

    Excellent post – I have seen the same thing in the classroom way too much. One of the ways I tried to help students become less reliant on me is the “Three before me” guideline…. BEFORE asking, students needed to try three things to resolve their question- for instance look over the instructions again, ask a classmate (quietly and appropriately) and Google it or otherwise look for a reference to help. THEN they could ask me. Tried to do this in a fun way, and remind them all the time about this. The students (Middle School kids) did improve over the year – gained more self-sufficiency and more confidence, too. I was able to concentrate a bit more on actually helping students in need, or learning about the subject matter, etc.

    The Three Before Me phrase is not mine… learned about it years ago in a PD session or read it online, so I don’t know the origin. This was definitely part of my classroom approach. In fact, used it with the faculty for edtech learning as well… less successfully, but it did help some!

    Thanks!

  3. Stell says:

    Why? The primary reason is that schools (and parents) train kids to be helpless.

  4. Analisa Herring says:

    Great article about how to guide students to being self directed learners. My catch phrase is, “What do you think?” Or, “What tools do you have to figure it out?” It is all about empowering children. You are right – we cannot be on call all of the time in the classroom – children have to be able to make decisions about their learning. If children leave my classroom more independent than when they arrived – I have done my job.

  5. Cynthia says:

    Every once in a while a student asks me how to spell a word. I respond by asking them if they have their pen and paper ready, are they really ready — okay here you go — and then I spell out the letters — d i c t i o n a r y. Sometimes they get a little angry with me. 🙂

  6. Meredith W Schwartz says:

    When a student says to me, “I need help.” my reply is, “Tell me specifically what you need help with. If I have more information I can be of better help.” Inevitably the student cannot answer me because of learned helplessness. The student has learned to immediately ask for help because someone has usually responded to her with an explanation of what she is supposed to do. That’s not how students learn to be self-reliant, however. The first thing I ask the student when she asks this question is (if pertinent), “Have you read the directions?” If the answer is “Yes.” I then ask, “In your own words, tell me what the directions say.” She is usually stumped because, of course, she has not read the directions. I then ask her to read the directions out loud. Usually somewhere in the middle of the first line of the directions I hear “Ooohhh! I get it.” and the conversation is over. Sometimes, if reading issues are involved, the student and I will read the directions together. If the “I need help” comes during work, my reply is the same. I continue to question the student until she can specifically identify what is confusing. Sometimes the help that is needed is simply a reminder to read all of the information before trying to form a response.

    • Thank you for sharing your strategy/process, Meredith! I too find that most of the questions about assignments can be answered if students simply read the instructions. It blows my mind how often they fail to do this simple task. I wonder if that’s because teachers typically walk them through all of the parts instead of letting them read through them on their own.

      Catlin

    • JRMama says:

      That’s an excellent way to guide them in the process. The statement, “Figure it out” (from the article) seems disrespectful and lazy. Imagine someone saying that you after a question?

      • I’ve definitely had people tell me to figure things out. Our students will be entering a workforce where they will be expected to do just that. Students will likely do many different jobs in their lifetimes and the skill of learning how to learn is invaluable. I think a “figure it out” philosophy helps to break the cycle of asking questions without thinking or even attempting to find an answer for themselves. If that wording isn’t your favorite, then use what works for you.

        Catlin

        • I know Catlin and I can see/hear her saying “Figure it out” with a smile and encouraging tone. Her kids know exactly why she’s saying it, too! 🙂

          • You nailed it, Laura!

            My kids know I don’t answer their questions because I want them to know how to answer their own questions. They cannot take me home in their backpacks, so they have to develop these skills.

            Catlin

      • Diane Shryock says:

        I can see how in a social setting “figure it out” could be considered disrespectful and lazy, but if the teacher has just finished teaching the skills, reviewing the lesson, and then gives the assignment; and within the first few minutes a student comes up and asks “how do I…” or “what do I …” the teacher knows that the student hasn’t taken time to either a) read the instructions (as instructed) b) think about what is being asked c) think about what they already know or d) tried to solve their own problem, then “figure it out” is actually an encouragement to do a,b and c. If a teacher asid that, they are actually redirecting the student without confronting(and embarassing) them in front of their peers.
        The situation matters a great deal. I use this approach, along with asking questions, until the student comes to a resolution. That’s teaching! Just giving them the answer is enabling.. and the result of enabling is learned helplessness. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t require they try.

  7. I’m with you, Caitlin. I tell students, “You’re smart. Figure it out.” Early on they get frustrated with my unwillingness to help them, but they come to appreciate that they have a lot of tools at their disposal. Now, I’ll help any kid who needs help, but our students have learned that adults have the answers and they don’t. I’m not a fan of that way of thinking. Because it’s not true.

    • I agree, Marion. The misconception of the teacher as the keeper of knowledge has to change. Anyone with a device that has access to the internet can get information. Students need to feel capable of asking and answering their own answers.

      Catlin

  8. Amy Penwell says:

    Another tool to keep in the box is having some carefully selected supports available for your students. ‘Google the answer’ isn’t always going to work: it can’t organize information, analyze information, or synthesize information into coherent connections students can create their knowledge. It also doesn’t discriminate between good information and bad information. Your school librarians can help curate print and digital resources to support your students’ progress through the process of locating and using information.

    • Great point about using librarians as a resource, Amy! Librarians can be super helpful in the process of learning how to find sources and evaluate the credibility of those sources. Too often they are underutilized resources on a campus.

      Catlin

    • Emma M says:

      Amy,
      I especially love your response to this article because it highlights how so many kids think now. They think that if the answer is not online that it is no where to be found! Encouraging the use of other school resources helps students to realize that there are other ways to “figure it out!” Great point!

  9. Melissa Jorgensen says:

    Yes! Yes! and Yes! Perfectly said, says this High School teacher.

  10. Natalie says:

    I think one of the big problems too is busy parents. It is far easier to do something or give the right answer straight away rather than fostering independence (yes it does take longer when my children do things themselves but they are learning). And by asking questions about their questions does take time, but together you construct knowledge together, and this takes time!

    • You make a great point, Natalie.

      As a parent of two little ones, I know there are many times when I’m tired or busy and it’s tempting to just provide the answer. However, those moments are so important because we can help our children learn how to ask questions and where to find information.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Catlin

  11. Vicki Davis says:

    Great point here, Catlin!

    I work hard to teach my students how to find tutorials and search for answers, but many don’t know how to search for those things. There is a fine balance between those who truly struggle and those who just want to use the teacher’s brain as their faster-than-google-answer-machine. Love this!

    • So true, Vicki!

      Teaching students how to find tutorials is part of helping them to be independent learners. I spend a lot of time on that too.

      Thanks for posting the comment! I hope you are doing well.

      Take care.
      Catlin

  12. Marie says:

    The biggest difference between Andragogy and Pedagogy is that Andragogy uses life experience as a foundation for learning, which is why it’s a theory practiced in higher education. I believe it’s incorrectly assumed that Andragogy cannot be implemented in elementary education because children lack that foundation. In today’s society, everyone, including children, has access to a vast compendium of human experience; it’s just one click away. Therefore, tools like self-direction should be taught well before college. Children need to be taught to be proactive and creative when searching for solutions to their problems, if nothing more than the fact that they’re capable of being so. Once we’re adults, it’s much more difficult to assume the responsibility of self-direction if it’s not instilled in us when we’re young, which is the root of the problem.

  13. joan says:

    An incredible by product of making students responsible for their own learning is that they cannot call you a bad teacher. My remedial math students ask for help and I redirect. “NO. you’re the teacher” so I encourage to try it before coming back. Most times it works. When they refuse, they say I don’t teach. I agree. Teaching hasn’t worked for them so we are trying something else. They say I don’t help. Yes I do, I just don’t do it for you. They sleep on the desk and I let them. When they say I failed them, I asked how? Like you said, I don’t do anything. Funny how the rest of your classmates have As. When you are ready to learn, let me know. I’m with you the entire way, but I won’t do I for you. You need to do it. Eventually they give up fighting me and work with me. Pretty tough for kids who have been passed along their entire schooling.

  14. happyteacher says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts! I can also say that, as a teacher, not giving in to my students’ learned helplessness often netted me complaints from parents. Explaining the purpose behind letting students struggle a little generally helped, especially when parents understood that I wouldn’t let students fail due to searching out their own answers. There were always some, however, for whom their child’s grades were so important that they couldn’t risk letting that child go through the actual learning process – they just wanted right answers and As on the report cards.

  15. D says:

    My entire curriculum is designed this way. We give kids the state standards, they develop questions and find resources. Now we also have some resources they can use. Teachers are strongly discouraged from doing content lessons and no worksheets are allowed (I guess that’s obvious).

    What do you do for students who are English learners or who read far below grade level and so maybe can’t read a google resource or understand a video on YouTube?

    • I don’t currently have ELs who would struggle with information in English. This may be a question to throw out to other readers who may be facing that challenge. My instinct is that I’d encourage them to use Google in Spanish http://www.google.es. Information can be accessed in any language.

      Catlin

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  18. Sandra says:

    Please keep in mind that up to 20% of the classroom will include children with dyslexia. Most of these children will have poor literacy and numeracy skills – and resultant lower self esteem, even anxiety due to repeated failure, because they have not being taught effectively. Some may certainly have developed learned helplessness as a coping mechanism, but most will not actually have the strategies to be self directed learners without significant support. Thankfully the blended learning environment you encourage is very beneficial to dyslexic learners.

    • I have dyslexia myself, Sandra, so I definitely understand the challenges that come with it as a student. I always felt I had to work so much harder than my peers to do well in school. I think those pockets of students with learning challenges need strategies as much (if not more) than the average student so they can experience success.

      Thanks for the comment! You raise an important point.

      Catlin

      • Sandra says:

        Thank you Catlin, I didn’t know that. I’m a dyslexia awareness advocate in Australia 😊

        • Thank you for the work you do, Sandra! I was diagnosed late in high school after struggling for years and pulling all night study sessions regularly in high school. I wish I had been identified earlier. It would have made my life so much easier if I had known sooner.

          Catlin

  19. Christopher Nelson-Burger says:

    Google (and other sites like it, to be fair) is part of my issue as a teacher. Just because you Google it, does not mean you learn it. My students live a life where everything is at their technology fingertips. Asking them to memorize a definition or theorem (I teach geometry to high school students) is next to impossible. They just don’t want to do it.

  20. Jorey says:

    The learned helplessness is coupled with a lack of curiosity. My students don’t want to know why they got an incorrect answer and fix it. They’re complacent. Can you instill curiosity?

    • Adam says:

      I’m trying something new with my college students this semester – if they fail an assignment, they can get a token (which they use to re-take a limited number of assignment) if they fill out a self-reflection questionnaire about the reasons why they failed it and how they will change their approach for the next assignment. If they don’t do it well enough, however, they don’t get the token. We’ll see how that works.

      • That’s an interesting strategy, Adam! I love the self-reflection component.

        I hope it’s successful!

        Catlin

      • Deb says:

        When my fifth grade students take a test and miss answering accurately, they have to write out the questions and answers in complete sentences. They tend to remember the information after going through the procedure.

  21. Ellen Hokanson says:

    Watch the parents of preschoolers “help” them solve a puzzle, or get up a climbing structure, or butten a coat, before they even show frustration with the task. Girls get this treatment more than boys do, and in my experience (as parent and teacher) they’re also more likely to fear “doing it wrong.”

    Like a lot of folks above, I insist students reframe a general question (“I don’t get it,” being the worst) into a specific one. Also, I was taught by a wise teacher long ago to ask: “What have you tried so far?” Describing their steps, if they’ve taken any, almost always leads kids to think of one they haven’t yet tried. If they’ve tried nothing, they instantly realize that and tell me something they could try.

    • Agreed, Ellen. I like the idea of asking them to reframe questions. Asking a clear question that really gets to the heart of the confusion is so important. Asking them to articulate a more specific question may actually help them to find an answer or have a better sense of where to start as they attempt to answer if for themselves.

      Catlin

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  23. Rick Owens says:

    A little different scenario, but I love when my students come to me after they’ve been absent and ask, “Did I miss anything yesterday?” Now it seems like an innocent question to them, but it really frustrates me. I tell them, “Nope, we noticed you weren’t here, so we sat on our bums and did nothing because we couldn’t move on without you.” I then ask the to rephrase their question more appropriately, and they usually do. “What did I miss yesterday?” Or “Can I get my work that I missed yesterday?” I then remind them that I post everything on my website in a calendar and ask them to take some effort to figure it out. The after, I’m happy to explain anything they don’t understand. I work hard to make everything easily accessible to them, but they want it handed to them on a silver platter.

    • I face that exact scenario weekly, Rick.

      I used to get frustrated too since everything we do is online. I’ve decided to think about it differently to avoid feeling frustrated. I’ve come to the conclusion that they know where the information is, but they just need me to validate that they are back. I say, “Yes, we missed you. Make sure to check what you missed online and let me know if you have questions.” It’s helped me to mentally change my perception of why they are asking if they missed anything.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Catlin

      • ER says:

        OOOOOO I like that response. Mine is a usually a little more snarky. I need to be better about that. I just get so frustrated. Everything is online AND printed in a hanging file folder that they can access. They just don’t want to do the work to make sure they are getting what they need, they want us to do it for them.

  24. Habeeb M says:

    Most of the students we cone across have ready access to a device or textbook. As an IT teacher in a computer lab, my stock response was “you have the knowledge of the world at your fingertips, use it!” Increasingly though what I noticed is that students lack efficient strategies for finding answers within the confines of the lesson duration that common timetables inflict upon us. I say along with eradicating “learned helplessness” we must also cultivate curiosity and teach the tools and techniques that enable learners to be independent.

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  26. elsewhere says:

    Hi,

    So I didn’t go through all the comments, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of suggestoins to use the very effective, “Well, what do you want?” question.
    “Well, what do you want it to look like?”
    “Well, what do you think sounds good?”
    “Well, what do you want other people to think of it?”
    And from there, I direct students to resources and examples.

    It really doesn’t seem to be learned helplessness, it seems to be fear of screwing things up combined with a lack of interest. Being told what and how to do things your whole life doesn’t lead to a secure set of experiences from which to draw, nor an idea of one’s own tastes.

    If helplessness come from dependence, than shouldn’t independence come from self-reliance? Decision-making creates context in the mind, and so shouldn’t all the decisions come from what the student wants?

    An immediate response to this miay very well be something like, “But how are they to know what to do if we don’t tell them?” They’ll figure it out if they want it bad enough, no? And if they don’t want it bad enough, then their focus firmly lands on their priorities. At that point, they can simply say their priorities outloud, as a teacher you can examine them and see if they would lead to what a student said they wanted.

    Only at that point does a teacher get to say, “Well, alright…but I think you can do better. If you want more, I’ll tell you to get that, too.”

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  29. Sue says:

    I work with the under 10’s – and they know that they I don’t have many answers. If someone asks me a question I say I’m not sure and either ask follow up questions OR if appropriate ask if anyone in the room can help. The students LOVE to be the teachers and help their friends to solve the problems. We work at the beginning of the year on NOT giving the answers to questions but helping their friends to find the answers. When it comes to spelling, using a dictionary on a tablet or phone you can start to spell a word and prediction can help everyone to get the right spelling – including the teachers!! Great post Caitlin – we all need to problem solve more and not look for helplessness approach.

    • Thank you, Sue! I totally agree that students enjoy being the “teachers” when given the chance to take the lead and help each other. It’s all about setting a tone at the start of the year.

      Take care.
      Catlin

  30. Julia Hale says:

    Got inspired by this discussion to make this document – for classroom display. In case it helps anyone else. Thanks everyone! I used all your ideas.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5zBHkVMJf10MmpoYU5pUlhNSFE/view?usp=sharing

  31. I completely agree with this post about student learned helplessness. Many students have it and its our job as educators not to enable it, but rather give them strategies to overcome it and become independent. Today during one of my parent/teacher conferences a parent began this exact conversation with me about how he tries to teach his daughter to do more things for herself, but questions if he is truly doing the right thing for her because he feels so guilt in the moment for not giving in to her wants and dependence. I was so impressed that a parent is also taking this initiative to battle a negative character trait that he sees at home. I think that this conversation was the key to our solution. Parents also need to be award of what learned helplessness is, and not be afraid to combat it positively alongside the teachers.

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  35. Emma M says:

    Hi Catlin!
    I have been doing a lot of research about this because I feel that it is something that I am struggling with in my Kindergarten class. I often feel the need to help them with everything that they ask because they are so young. However, this is the time that I should be saying “You can figure that out on your own!” I want them to become independent and inquiring learners from the start of their time in school. I cannot tell my students yet to go google something on their own but I think that modeling this for them when they ask a question can help get them prepared for when they have their own laptops/cell phones to be able to research problems on their own.

    I love your articles and I look forward to hearing more about this topic!

    • Hi Emma,

      I think this is an important message to send kids early. Young kids are so curious and inquisitive. We need to harness that early! Get them asking questions, brainstorming, and “researching.” If more young kids were encouraged to “figure it out” early, I think they’d have a different mentality when they got to me in high school.

      Catlin

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