Learned Helplessness

Article by Colin Hill

In an experiment you may not be aware of, a class of learners was randomly split down the middle. A challenge was given to each half – each group was given three words.

Group 1 were given:
(1) whirl
(2) slapstick
(3) cinerama

Group 2 were given:
(1) bat
(2) lemon
(3) cinerama

They were all asked to work on their own and in silence. They were told that, upon presentation of each word, they had to work out an anagram from the word given – also, they only had a few seconds to work it out. At the same time, everyone was asked to start with word (1).

The teacher asked students to raise their hands if they had worked out an anagram of the word they were presented with. Many in group 2 raised their hands, as they had worked out that ‘bat’ became ‘tab’. No one in Group 1 raised their hand. Immediately, the task continued with word (2), with the same ‘raise your hand when you’ve finished’ rule. Again, hands were raised in Group 2 as they worked out that ‘lemon’ could become ‘melon’. No one in Group 1 raised their hand. Finally, the task concluded with both groups being asked to work out the anagram of word (3).

You will have noticed that word (3) was the same for both groups. After 5 seconds, the group was asked to raise their hands if they had worked out the anagram. Remarkably, the majority of students in Group 2 raised their hands for this trickiest problem, working out that ‘cinerama’ became ‘American’. Only a couple of students in Group 1 managed to work out the anagram. In fact, Group 1 had learned earlier on in the experiment that they were ‘no good at anagrams’, when they looked over to see that their peers in Group 2 had all worked out their anagram. This was further reinforced when the second work was presented, with similar results plain to see by Group 1.

In fact, words (1) and (2) presented to Group 1 were non-anagram friendly words. They had been stitched up! By witnessing how well Group 2 were performing, the individuals in Group 1 had decided that they must be rubbish at such tasks, so their motivation to press on to word (3) had diminished. Word (3) is a difficult word to solve, but the confidence and affirmation given by successfully completing the first two words had encouraged Group 2 to triumphantly search for the answer. By the time they were presented with word (3), then why bother? Students in this experiment (you can see the video at uked.chat/helpless) who were part of Group 1 told that they felt stupid, rushed, even more confused, and frustrated.

What happened in the above example is known as ‘Learned Helplessness’, a phenomenon described as a behaviour that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid. After such experiences, the individual often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behaviour is likely to be effective. In other words, inaction can lead individuals to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Learned Helplessness behaviours can manifest into many different issues, such as low self-esteem, passivity, poor motivation, giving up, lack of effort, frustration, procrastination, failure to ask for help and, as a result, is very relevant for educators to be aware of.

Academic struggles can often lead to feelings of learned helplessness. A child who makes an effort to do well but still does poorly may end up feeling that s/he has no control over grades or performance. Since nothing s/he does seems to make any difference, they will stop trying and grades will suffer even more. Such problems can also affect other areas of the child’s life. Poor performance in school can make individuals feel that nothing they do is right or useful, so may lose the motivation to try in other areas of life as well. As teachers, most would be mortified if our students told us that, during our lessons, they felt stupid, rushed, even more confused, and frustrated.

Research suggests that learned helplessness can be successfully decreased, particularly if intervention occurs during early onset. Long-term learned helplessness can also be reduced, although it may require longer-term effort. As educators, lesson can be learned from the example at the start of this article. Too often, to keep the lesson pacey, we rely on our ‘go-to’ pupils who will quickly raise their arm to give the answer, ignoring allowing time for other students to process the question, work out an answer, and improve any mistakes in their learning. By this very act, we can be guilty of potentially making other students feel helpless, and affirm negative self-fulfilling prophesies: “Why should I bother?”; “I never get asked to answer a question”; “I don’t want to share my answer, in case it’s wrong and everyone laughs at me”, and so on. So, what can educators (and other adults) do to limit the damage potential of learned helplessness? Here are some ideas and strategies that can make all the difference:

Encourage Independence

Don’t do all the hard work for children. Let them have a go. Show young people that they are respected and cherished as remarkable individuals who have the ability to achieve.

Let them fail, but show them how to improve next time

Scaffold. Build up knowledge and skills in a logical and supportive environment. Create opportunities that let them succeed through their own hard work and ‘having a go’.

Encourage problem solving

Allow opportunities to think about how to solve a problem. Make problem solving a practical part of daily life, where possible.

Give time to process, think and provide an answer

Although classroom time is at a premium, allow young people the time to process questions. Don’t fill the silent gaps, and encourage answers from pupils in different ways than shouting out in front of their peers.

Help improve confidence & resilience

Celebrate the small successes young people achieve in all aspects of life. Celebrate kindness, thoughtfulness and resilient behaviour.

This article originally appeared in Issue 53 of the UKEdMagazine. You can freely read the magazine by clicking here

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About @digicoled 446 Articles
Colin Hill - Founder, researcher and editor of ukedchat. Also a bit of a tech geek! Project management, design thinking, and metacognition.

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