For years, a continuing lament of teachers is students’ ‘learned helplessness.’ I witnessed this time and again: students who eschew pencils on the ground or break them then repeatedly asking for another, treating provided materials with disdain, echoing phrases of “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand,” and waging a war of attrition: who’s going to break first– me or them–when it comes to clarifying instructions or letting them become overly frustrated? (I usually just answer questions with questions, but somehow that doesn’t always inspire.) How could they NOT be getting this?! The learning targets and success criteria are written with great thought and precision every single day: why won’t they look at the board, and tuck into this delicious buffet of knowledge and enlightenment I’ve offered? The old phrase ‘students should work harder than the teacher’ often didn’t happen. Some folks think grit may be the answer, but to date no one knows how to ‘teach grit,’ or even if it should be taught.

If asked what the learning target/success criteria is for any given lesson, students are trained to parrot back what’s on the board, robotically and usually, joyless. If an evaluator is in the room, this signal from teachers to students is an expectation, and often students are pulled away and quietly asked, “What is the learning target today?” as a check-point for the teacher. The locus of control and agency shifts from student engagement to teacher accountability. And the learned helplessness increases.

I now know why.

And I want my colleagues to pay attention and collaborate with me, and see if we can do better.

How we learn to be helpless—and unlearn it

Learned helplessness keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it may be to escape. Learn how to defeat this psychological trap, thanks to the work of Martin Seligman.

4 thoughts on “Agility.

  1. I take away the simple impediments, for one thing. Don’t have a pencil or paper? No big deal, here is what you need. As an adult, in a professional setting, I have never been denied access to a meeting because I didn’t have paper and a writing implement. I ask, and whatever I need to do my job well is procured for me. I don’t argue with my students about why they don’t have paper and pencil. I mostly don’t even talk to them about it. They are taught to get it for themselves in the first days of class. Does it go to waste sometimes? Does it get abused sometimes? Sure. Those are the conversations I engage in. About gratitude, and wastefulness, conversations that can have wider reaching connotations. I am willing to reach out to the community and parents for help with the purchase of those basic supplies, and they aren’t the funnest or most attractive, but I don’t waste class learning time to argue.

    The next thing I do is I talk often and early about fear of failure, and what it looks and sounds like in a middle school classroom. ‘I am bored’, ‘This is stupid’, ‘Why are we learning this?’ (when really, they already know) are just signs of fear to me. I do my best to answer those statements with reassurance that the student is capable of accomplishing the task, rather than actually reacting to the statement. Most of the time, when a student says something like this I call them up to my desk so that to other students, it might look like I am chewing them out for rudeness. Really, I am explaining the directions again, and asking what other help they need. I work on making sure students who have this kind of reaction to fear understand what the issue is, and work on enlightening them as to the real problem. This doesn’t always work, because a lot of the time kids in this situation have some immature brain function that doesn’t allow it, but sometimes there is a breakthrough, a dawning of the light over time.

    In terms of repeating directions multiple times, early on I pick out a kid in each class that ‘does school’ well. That is my designated go to for kids who don’t understand what to do after my directions-giving patience wears thin, and often before. Talk to so and so. Or better yet, find a small handful of those independent minded kids, and bring them on board to help others who aren’t a swift on the uptake. Give them praise, talk to the entire class about helping everyone (life isn’t a competition, after all) and make sure they know that we all do better when we all do better. It creates a better classroom environment, and makes like easier for everyone. This tends to have more success in earlier class periods than later, but even in 6th period this year, with a class of people who would prefer to be on any sports field more than a classroom, with a little more effort and some more coaching about words to use, we made it to the end of the year with major incident.

    And those pesky standards? I still struggle with those. I am tired of having administrators ask why the standard today is the same it was yesterday. My common reply is ‘because we haven’t learned it yet’, or are still learning it, or we don’t meet standards yet. If that standard is supposed to have real meaning, and not just be a ‘show piece’ or another hoop to jump through, it might be the same for awhile. I can’t expect students to learn a complex idea or task in one day. There are 10 social studies standards in the ELA Common Core. If I could miraculously teach them all in one day, I would be done teaching them by mid-September, and could go on to focus on the content that students enjoy, and is easy to teach, because, yep, you guessed it, students enjoy it. But I can’t teach it all by mid-September because that is an unrealistic expectation, just like it is unrealistic that I would be able to teach even one of them in 10 days. Some are easy, some are hard, some are complex. They take time.


    1. One thing I forgot to add was this Marzano chart with calculated percentile gains per instructional strategy. Setting objectives is the lowest return on the list:

      I am not sure how they arrived at these numbers, which may be worth more investigation.

      As far as removing pencils, etc. those are low-level needs, and while I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on pencils over the years, and composition books (into the thousand-zone), I think we tell students too much, and spend too much time on directions. Often I think students use the ‘I don’t know’ as a stalling tactic. Routine, protocols, and purpose are great: we just need to inverse the focus on learning targets to actual learning.


  2. Great article and serious issue that needs serious addressing. It frustrates me to know end, but I’ve been sensitive to this issue since I was a kid I think, having a friend around me who couldn’t understand why I was pissy when he was late all the time, or never had money, or other irresponsible shit kind of always put me in the mindset of being straight forward and explaining stuff to people. So, when I deal with students who give up or think learning, being responsible or successful are too difficult to even impossible, I explain it step by step. Doesn’t always work, but like Sharon commented, at least give them the tools, and the instructions for how to get it done.


  3. Mike – thanks for your comment! I think we have all known the ‘mental moocher’– and maybe that’s what learned helplessness looks like. If we can learn helplessness, perhaps we can ‘unlearn’ it, too. I plan on continuing the work with heavy student reflection: as the old axiom goes, nothing succeeds like success: when they see that they can do something and that struggling doesn’t mean stupidity, perhaps they’ll feel more confident to take risks. I just question some of the counter-productive ways some of the ‘new’ teacher-accountability language or protocols undermine solid habits of mind.

    and my personal favorite: metacognition


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