On Learned Helplessness

(These are initial thoughts as I process through this concept.)

I was prompted to start thinking deeply about learned helplessness by this tweet and its follow-ups: https://twitter.com/heymrsbond/status/1603757493171232768

I had already been aware of the concept, and had been feeling frustrated because of what seems like a high level of learned helplessness in my students. Here is a list of symptoms, of which I’ve been seeing a drastic uptick in my students this year:
  • feeling a lack of control over the outcome of situations
  • failing to ask for help
  • having low self-esteem
  • decreased motivation
  • putting less effort into tasks
  • lack of persistence
  • feelings of frustration
  • passivity
  • giving up easily

(Source: “What is Learned Helplessness?”, Medical News Today)

At the same time, though, I recognized a lot of this in my own behavior, as well as the behavior of my teacher colleagues. The education world seems to be drowning in this.

Bond’s point, though, was that students are not ultimately responsible for their own learned helplessness. It is common these days to push concepts like “grit” and “mindset” on students, as if it’s up to students alone to change their outcomes.

While perspective is certainly important to our mental state, it’s also important to note that students wouldn’t need to overcome trauma if the trauma didn’t exist in the first place.

I have a lot to unpack: My own personal “learned helplessness”, the learned helplessness of educators, and how I can improve my own understanding of the concept to address both my students’ feelings and my complicity (or lack thereof) in a system that traumatizes them.

A teacher colleague points out that, in education, we tend to use this phrase to refer to student behavior where they act like they can’t do anything, such as using a calculator, writing anything down, doing basic tasks that they’d done years ago, and so on. It is seen as an act of actively defiant stubbornness, in the same way that a parent who wants a child to do a chore will eventually give up and do it themself if the child resists long enough.

But in the clinical definition, it’s deeper than that. The passivity is not active defiance but a feeling of pointlessness.

In “Learned Hopelessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience”, Maier and Seligman write, “We are mindful that in the theory of explanatory style, ‘hope’ consists largely in the habit of expecting that future bad events will not be permanent, global, and uncontrollable, rather they will be temporary, local and controllable.”

It’s noteworthy that, within the context of school, “hope” exists in the form that every class will be over after a set amount of time. If class time is the “shock”, the students know that they can just wait it out. Whether they actively engage or sit passively, it will be over at the same point.

At the same time, though, students seem to get a fairly persistent message that the trauma is not controllable. Teachers have the bulk of the power. Speaking against the trauma will likely only make it worse: This is an element I haven’t seen in my so-far-brief exploration of the Learned Helplessness literature, which is focused on the idea of “it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t change anything.”

If someone learns that standing against trauma won’t make it go away, might make it last longer, and will have only a negative effect, the most logical route is to just wait it out. I see that over and over in my students, and I see it over and over in myself and my colleagues.

I have had too many conversations with my colleagues of this nature. I’ll complain about the latest inane administrative edict, and my colleagues will say, “Yeah, but they’ll forget about it. I’ll ignore it, wait it out, and in two months, they’ll be on to something else.”

This is a common theme in both teacher and student behavior: Wait it out, it’ll go away.

We are dogs tied up in hammocks, waiting for the shocks to go away.

In the previously linked article, Maier and Seligman point to the similarity between lab-created learned helplessness and real-world depression, the former of which contains all but the last of these DSM-IV symptoms of the latter:

  • Sad mood
  • Loss of interest
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Psychomotor problems
  • Fatigue
  • Worthlessness
  • Indecisiveness or poor concentration
  • Thoughts of suicide

I’ve noticed in myself that frustration over a work situation can lead to feelings of helplessness, which then lead to symptoms of depression. I don’t want to give up and give in, but the pressure seems overwhelming at times, especially when I’m surrounded by naysayers who are waiting for the shocks to go away.

As teachers, we have a role in the educational trauma of our students. We can perpetuate it or we can fail to do so. Even if we fail to do so, though, it is na├»ve to assume that they’ll instantly trust us and overcome their own habits of thought. It is wrong for us to blame them for failing to instantly do so, or to insist that they just need to suck it up and learn grit.

Much has been written about how students, especially from marginalized groups or lower SES backgrounds, already have “grit”. Not enough has been written, in my view, about how our educational system is actively traumatic and reinforces the feeling of helplessness of our students, and for that matter of our teachers.

These are yet rough and initial thoughts on the subject. I have my own issues with learned helplessness, both in my workplace and in my life in general, to confront and process. We’re in this together, and as the adults in the room, it’s not useful to demand that youth overcome struggles that we ourselves are drowning in.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.