Student Well-Being Opinion

Unlearning Learned Helplessness

By David Ginsburg — March 08, 2014 2 min read
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“I need help,” several students said in their geometry class at Esperanza Academy in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think so,” teacher John Roman replied.

Roman had just given students a handout with several unmarked triangles on it, and asked them to determine which of the triangles were congruent. He also gave them patty paper (tracing paper), and said that it might help them complete the task. He did not, however, show or tell students what to do with it.

But what if students hadn’t used patty paper before? What if they didn’t know what it means for two triangles to be congruent? How can a teacher give students so little direction and expect anything but confusion?

Sure enough, confusion is exactly what John Roman got. But more important, confusion is what Roman wanted. That’s why he denied one student after another when they asked for help.

Such knee-jerk calls for help are indicative of a common reason students don’t learn to their potential: learned helplessness. They encounter an unfamiliar task (or word, formula, etc.), and immediately shut down or seek help.

The good news is that because it’s learned helplessness, it can also be unlearned. And because students have learned it from enabling educators like me (until I stopped spoon-feeding them), we’re in the best position to help them unlearn it. We just need to stop helping kids when they don’t need our help. Turns out, for example, that John Roman’s students had sufficient prior knowledge of congruent triangles. They were also more than capable of figuring out how to use patty paper to perform the assigned task. What they lacked was a problem-solving mindset. They lacked qualities such as determination and resourcefulness.

Yet students will only acquire those qualities if we put them in situations that require those qualities. That’s what John Roman did by not telling students what to do with the patty paper and by denying their requests for help. And his resolve paid off. After commiserating for a couple of minutes, a few students picked up the patty paper and began tracing triangles. Soon all students did this, with no help from Roman besides subtle reminders to a few students that the patty paper might be helpful.

The value for students of experiences like this has more to do with confidence than content. The more they learn with little or no help from us, the more they believe in themselves and their abilities. Sure it’s important for students to learn math and science and social studies. But the real lesson for kids when teachers do what John Roman did is that confusion is where learning begins, not where it ends.

And the lesson for us as educators is that students will only unlearn helplessness when we relearn helpfulness.

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