My dad's really good at fixing computers. Me, not so much. My computer broke, and although I do own a book that could teach me how to fix it, I just had my dad do it.
My dad joked that I was too lazy to fix it myself. "You have a master's degree," he said. "I think you could figure it out!" But that's really not why I asked him to do it. Life has taught me time and time again that I'm just not great at fixing computers. The last time I tried to fix my computer I broke it permanently and lost all of my important work. I was afraid to attempt it this time.
Does this ever happen in your classroom? Do you have students that could solve a problem if they really tried, but they just won't? Do certain problems make them shut down? Are they constantly asking for help or putting forth minimal effort?
Your students aren't lazy. They're learned helpless in some areas. Here's how it works.
Educational Consultant Rick Lavoie described something called "Differential Diagnosis." A doctor sees two patients for headache symptoms. He determines that one patient needs brain surgery, and the other has allergies. They both are prescribed very different treatments. Doctors are skilled in differential diagnoses. Conversely, a teacher sees five students with their heads on their desks and assumes that they are all lazy. We've got to get better at differential diagnoses. One student may have been up all night helping a sick parent, while another may be suffering from learned helplessness in reading. This child has learned from experience that each time he attempts to read, he is unable and feels frustrated and embarrassed.
Brain Based Learning theorist Eric Jensen described common learned helpless behaviors and provided ideas for replacing them with learned helpful behaviors.
Learned helpless behaviors
- sabotage positive outcomes
- give up before they have started
- refuse to follow directions
- engage in passivity rather than activity
- adhere to limits that they have set upon themselves
- believe that things will happen regardless of their input
- enjoy humor that is hostile
- avoid learning activities
- feign illnesses
- engage in “class clown” type behaviors
- express a “Why try?" mentality
- engaging students in community service
- giving students activist roles
- encouraging active hobbies
- implementing physical activity
- practicing personal skills
- encouraging students to begin making contributions to family
- redirecting negative states in class
- enhancing positive states in class
- giving students choices
- providing plenty of opportunities to increase self-worth
- utilizing confidence-building activities
- thanking students for something they've done
- helping students increase feelings of inclusion and ownership
- giving specific positive praise and encouragement
Rick Lavoie compared learned helplessness to an elephant at the zoo. A baby elephant was tied to a post in a zoo and tried to pull away, but no matter how much the elephant tried, the chain wouldn't budge. Eventually, the elephant stopped trying. After a few years, the elephant was full grown and strong enough to tear that tiny post right out of the ground and break free-- yet the elephant had been trained to stay put. Students with learned helplessness are a lot like this elephant and should be encouraged to "give the chain a tug."
Lavoie tells the story better than I do. Watch him here! (The whole video is awesome. Fast forward to 3:31 into the video for the learned helplessness information)
Buy the whole video Motivation Breakthrough by Rick Lavoie here:
Do you have any students who exhibit learned helplessness? Do you have any strategies that help? Share in the comments below!
A Peach for the Teach