Spark Trader Limited Reports:
Educators have long argued for a positive redefinition of “failure” as a “learning opportunity,” but when failure becomes so normal and commonplace in a student’s life that it leads to abject resignation, it leads to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a psychological state associated with a sense of loss of control that causes students to be uninvested in efforts, even when they are achievable and apparently lead to success.
This phenomenon appears very early, so the understanding and awareness of this condition among primary educators is crucial. Educators of older students should also be aware of learned helplessness, because it has adverse effects on academic performance and mental health, as demonstrated by a 2007 video of an experiment that showed college-age adults abandoning classroom tasks in 10 to 15 minutes.
A sense of helplessness learned in the classroom
Learned helplessness usually begins early in childhood, through unresponsive caregivers (e.g., institutionalized children). Schools can exacerbate the situation, perpetuating a pessimistic mindset through untrustworthy adults or behavior that feeds the cycle of learned helplessness.
These school and classroom practices may come from good intentions such as over-scaffolding(not allowing students to have the opportunity to at least try to tackle a problem by providing help for almost doing the work for the child), but can lead to illness.
Here are some examples of learned helplessness in the classroom:
Refuse to accept help, even if the teacher offers it repeatedly
Frustration can easily lead to giving up
Out of work
Lack of motivation
Reduced self-worth and self-efficacy (e.g. giving endless reasons why a solution won’t work)
It is crucial to examine what message students get from failure — how do children explain failure, and do educators perpetuate that explanation? For example, how do teachers react when students make mistakes? Do teachers in the classroom not only expect mistakes, but celebrate them as learning opportunities? Learned helplessness can result if students internalize failure as permanent, universal and personal information.
How to deal with learned helplessness
Teachers can look at learned helplessness from a fair perspective — students who are struggling, and have given up for a long time, deserve more attention — yet most strategies that target learned helplessness will actually help all students. There are a few things you can do.
Examine your grading method: Do you think giving a grade of zero will motivate students? If so, it may be time to rethink the practice. No student is motivated by a zero. Another strategy that needs to be examined is redo and refetch. Not allowing the opportunity to try again can send the message that failure is final and permanent.
Normalize and celebrate failure: Have you tried my favorite “no” as a strategy? This approach tells us that without failure, we can’t learn. Teachers can also model how to respond appropriately to failure and share stories of famous scientists and inventors who have successfully reshaped failure into opportunities for learning and discovery. The stories of Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and 15-year-old Jake Andraka are salutary narratives of failure and the value of resilience.