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For years, a continuing lament of teachers is students’ ‘learned helplessness.’ I witnessed this time and again: students who eschew pencils on the ground or break them then repeatedly asking for another, treating provided materials with disdain, echoing phrases of “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand,” and waging a war of attrition: who’s going to break first– me or them–when it comes to clarifying instructions or letting them become overly frustrated? (I usually just answer questions with questions, but somehow that doesn’t always inspire.) How could they NOT be getting this?! The learning targets and success criteria are written with great thought and precision every single day: why won’t they look at the board, and tuck into this delicious buffet of knowledge and enlightenment I’ve offered? The old phrase ‘students should work harder than the teacher’ often didn’t happen. Some folks think grit may be the answer, but to date no one knows how to ‘teach grit,’ or even if it should be taught.

If asked what the learning target/success criteria is for any given lesson, students are trained to parrot back what’s on the board, robotically and usually, joyless. If an evaluator is in the room, this signal from teachers to students is an expectation, and often students are pulled away and quietly asked, “What is the learning target today?” as a check-point for the teacher. The locus of control and agency shifts from student engagement to teacher accountability. And the learned helplessness increases.

I now know why.

And I want my colleagues to pay attention and collaborate with me, and see if we can do better.

How we learn to be helpless—and unlearn it

Learned helplessness keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it may be to escape. Learn how to defeat this psychological trap, thanks to the work of Martin Seligman.