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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Traditional Model = Learned Helplessness

When we invite students into our classroom, tell them to sit down, open their books and get out something to write with so that they can take notes or fill in some blanks. We are teaching them learned helplessness. says:

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.

Dr. Martin Seligman did some research on the learned helplessness using dogs. I’ll let you look into his experiments, but I think as teachers we have a lot to learn from these studies.

When I taught in the Developmental Disabilities Program and then as a father, I learned a lot about learned helplessness. The more you do for a child, the more they will expect you to do for them. In stressful situations, they will come to learn that they are not capable of doing things for themselves, and they will begin to believe that they do not possess the ability to do the things that you do for them. If a parent’s morning routine is always hectic and it's a rush to get out the door, parents might just start tying shoes and zipping zippers. But if this is the case more often than not, children will come to believe that because their parents just do it for them, they are not able to do it and so they will wait for it to happen for them.

Children come into my grade nine science class the same way. They come into class, sit down and wait to be told what to do and what to know. They don’t even take their books out on their own...they wait until they’re told. They don’t ask questions, because they are waiting to be told what they need to know. Or they’re waiting for the teacher to ask the questions. Thinking that I will tell them what they need to know, that they can’t figure it out on their own, and afraid to make a mistake. And by the time they leave high school, we tell them that they’ve “learned” everything they need to know to get to the next level, but in their minds, they have no idea how to solve a problem and again, they’re afraid to make a mistake. I think this is a colossal disservice to the students in our classrooms and to the communities they serve. They walk into class waiting for me to say “jump” so they can ask “how high?” They’ve been conditioned this way.

I don’t really do slideshows or lectures any more, but when I did, I’d start and kids would throw their hands in the air, “Sir, do we have to write this down?” And it's the same thing when they ask “Is this going to be on the test?” They don’t know what’s important and they don’t know what they need to know. Why not?

With my five year old daughter at home who is learning virtually, I know it would be much faster for me to login to the computer on my own, and I know it will be done right in the first place, but then we get to a point where she just brings the chromebook to me to login for her when her classes start. She learns that she can’t do it, or that daddy does it better. Now I have led her to believe that she needs me to do this for her and she becomes afraid to make a mistake.

When we treat our students like empty vessels and control what, and how much, information they get, they learn that they can’t learn unless a teacher tells them what they need to know. We aren’t teaching our students how to learn, we’re teaching them how to “play” school.

I was talking with a colleague about why I like project based learning and how I use it, and they asked me, “But how do I ask an open ended question, but make sure that they aren’t looking at university level stuff?” I asked, “Why would you not want them to look at university level stuff?”

Now, I know one of the arguments is that learning happens only when it is built upon previous knowledge. This has been proven to be true. But. Why does a teacher have to be the one to give that background knowledge to the students? If they are asked a question and come back with an answer they can’t explain, is that not a learning opportunity to go back and fill in some of the gaps in their understanding? Would it not give a deeper purpose to the learning? If students are asked to solve a problem and go beyond the curriculum, I think that that might not be a bad thing. And so what if they have to go back to fill in some gaps so as to have a deeper understanding of their original answer. That seems like a win to me.

One time, I was teaching a grade ten science class and we were in the biology unit. I gave them a question about the digestive system and a student came back to me with an answer about breaking food down into ATP and NADH+. If you don’t know, this what the body, at the cellular level, uses for energy. This student went WAY beyond the grade ten curriculum. The first thing that came to mind was “Whoa, this kid did way too much work and went into way too much depth. I gotta reel him in a little.” I’m embarrassed to admit that now.

What I do now, when things like that happen, is I start asking them questions to assess their understanding. Not to understand their memorization. If I’m teaching a grade ten science class, my job is to make sure students meet the curriculum expectations. If a student meets those expectations and then goes beyond them should we not celebrate that? If I ask a student about chemical digestion and they come back to me with the Kreb’s cycle (which is grade 11 or 12 bio), isn’t that amazing? Don’t hold these kids back from reaching their true potential. And don’t kill their curiosity by controlling their learning.

Why not give students control of their learning? How can you tell someone, “whoa, we have to pump the brakes because you don’t need to know that right now.” By taking control of their learning, the teacher is effectively telling the student that they can’t learn the things that they want to learn, because that’s not how school works. The student learns that school has rules that must be followed and is more about management than learning.

Why does it always have to be linear?

Or what if a student goes way beyond the curriculum and can in fact explain their findings well? Why would we want to stop this? Who are we, as teachers, to stop someone from reaching their true potential? I wonder if its because some teachers are afraid to admit that a student knows more about something than they do? Don’t be embarrassed, you inspired learning. Isn’t that our job?

The more we let students believe that they are incapable of learning without our “guidance” and control what and how much they learn, the more we are setting them up for failure.

If we ask ourselves “what are our students going to need to be successful at the next level?” and then reach for the curriculum documents to find the answer, we’re doing it wrong.

The traditional model of education is like holding our babies’ hands. We spoon feed them the answers to the test, ask them to memorize it and then regurgitate it. Okay, we might put a “thinking” question at the end of a test, but not until the students have answered all the multiple choice questions, the fill in the blank questions, labelled all the diagrams, filled in all the tables, written the short answers and then the “big” questions are at the end (and are comparatively worth very few points), but provide little opportunity for actually thinking and trying, and doing and applying. So by the time they leave high school they don’t know how to learn without a teacher. How does this promote lifelong learning?

I hear it all the time, “It wasn’t until I got to university that I learned to learn,” but why do we have to wait that long? And what the heck were we doing in high school if we weren’t learning to learn?! I’ll tell you: we were learning to play school. Why are there so many teachers talking about how to study? There are more infographics and articles about how to study than you can shake a stick at, and they all want to help students pass the test. See where I’m going with this? Is the purpose of school to pass? Or to learn?

I would argue, in fact I am arguing, that the purpose of school, as we know it today, is to pass. It's to accumulate credits and move on to the next step, which is preferably academia.

But that needs to change.

Why is the current education system still about fact regurgitation and standardized tests? It's so frustrating to me.

If we want our students to leave our schools and our classrooms with resilience and grit, some traits that will get them further than anything they can find on the internet, and in turn, everything in the curriculum documents, we have to stop holding their hands and leading them to believe that they are nothing without us. You know how kids, and pets, get separation anxiety when they aren’t with their parents? Same sort of thing goes for our students. Their anxiety sky-rockets when they’re faced with a task that they are not sure about. So many young adults suffer from “Failure To Launch” because they don’t have the skills they need to get off the ground...or the couch. We, teachers, can help them with that. They’re not being lazy. They’re not being stubborn. They lack the skills to tackle a problem. They lack the skills to interact with other people.

I hear teachers constantly talking about how important it is for us to get them ready for ______. And yet, that’s not really what we do. Why is information, facts, knowledge, what it takes to get someone ready for something? In an age where IT’S ALL ON THE INTERNET Why not skills? If we want our kids to play hockey, we don’t tell them how to skate. We don’t tell them the rules. We teach them how to skate and we let them experience the rules. If we keep letting our kids skate by pushing a chair, or another balance device, they are going to become dependent on it. They’re going to learn that they can’t skate without it.

If we don’t give our students the opportunity to own their learning, or control their learning, they will not believe they are able to learn on their own. Teach kids, not curriculum. Help them get ready for lifelong learning.

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