Sunday, October 2, 2011

On helplessness, learned and taught

It is hard for me to write about this, because some of my frustrations are very, very specific, and this could easily become about venting rather than professional reflection. Not that I never vent about these frustrations (believe me, I do), but I prefer to vent a little less publicly.

I cringe (I try to keep it internal) every time I see a teacher model a learning behavior they would never accept from students. Saying, "I don't get technology," or "I can't figure this out, I'm not even going to try" or "Here, you do it, it never works for me." All things I've had teachers say to me in front of students.

It is really hard to keep that cringe internal, because when I hear teachers say these things in front of students it makes me angry. For a faculty that is very aware of the impact of learned helplessness, we don't always spend a lot of time reflecting on who taught that helplessness.

I can be guilty of teaching helplessness to my teachers, and I am working on recognizing and stopping that behavior. When someone asks me a question, I want to answer it; this is an instinct many teachers and librarians share, and I don't think it's always a bad one. But sometimes our drive to provide the answer can get in the way of teaching people how to find the answers themselves.

For example, a teacher recently e-mailed me to ask if a certain book was available via Bookshare. My first instinct was to look it up for her; but, I'd spent a lot of time this summer creating Bookshare logins for all my teachers so they could look up books and download them for students at the point and time of need (part of a larger effort to make assistive tech a little more seamless). It would have been much, much faster for me to just give her the answer. But I didn't. I replied with the URL to the site, reminded her how to login, and pointed her to page on the library website with details for how to download a book. Yes, that took much longer (especially since I looked the book up anyway just to be sure), but I'm hoping for a long-term payoff.

We are piloting a 1:1 iPad program with our freshmen and sophomores this year. Some teachers are struggling with being comfortable with the iPad and learning new apps. I struggled with a lot of it too, at first. But now teachers will seem amazed when I know how to do something, and ask how I learned it. To which I always reply, "I pressed something, and saw what happened. And then I pressed something else. There is no self-destruct app for the iPad." But still every once in a while a teacher will say, "I'll never figure this out." When they do (and as long as there are no students around), I've tried to get better at asking, "Would you allow a student in your class to say that?" It can make the conversation kind of uncomfortable. But that's kind of my goal.

One of the things we as teachers need to model is that it's okay to fail. It's okay to get something wrong. Getting something wrong is often an important part of the process. But that idea makes many teachers nervous.

It can be scary to admit you don't know something. To admit it in front of a room of teenagers who already think they know more than you do can be downright terrifying.

But we have to be willing to model not just that it's okay to not know something, but how to ask for help learning how to do something. To say, "the kids are better with technology, I'll never keep up," and use that as an excuse not to learn? Inexcusable. When you say that in front of a student, what's to prevent them from thinking, "everyone else is better at history/math/reading/writing, I'll never keep up"? Is that the attitude towards learning something new we want to model for our students? I hope not.

We need to model the right attitude towards learning--not, "I don't know how to do this, you do it for me," but, "I don't know how to do this, can you show me how?"

If what we're teaching by our model is helplessness, we can't be surprised when that's what our students have learned.

But if instead we model that it's okay not to know, but not okay to not want to know, we create an environment in which all kinds of learning are possible.


  1. Amen! I try to take the same approach in all the teaching I do too. And get equally frustrated when I hear those "I just can't do it" phrases.

  2. Thanks for writing about this, Sara. Keep smiling as you tell them, "Yes, you can do it," "you can learn it;" "I did it, so can you." Even if you can feel your blood pressure rising. One of my favorite teachers has no confidence in her tech ability yet I was able to teach her how to set up a wiki in 10 minutes once she got over that, I can't learn this" auto-response. Now I have learned to expect her to say it and to just go on...she gets excited about the possibilities quickly when she sees she CAN learn something new. OK, I am mentally gritting my teeth but she won't know that!

  3. Sometimes I think of it as the difference between *being* patient, and *acting* patient. I may not actually be feeling patient, but I can act as if I am. Good teaching is, at least in part, about good acting. :)

  4. AMEN! I find it incredibly frustrating when teachers prefer for us to do it for them. When I see frustration levels rise I gently remind teachers that everyone, not just teachers learn at school. I know this makes me less than popular when teachers are in a hurry to find out information but I remind them that the information is at their fingertips the next time the question arises.