Can we teach someone to be helpless?

By April 29, 2014Education


To be helpless is to have the inability to help yourself. To be weak or powerless. “Helplessness” is a condition wherein one believes he is weak, powerless or has the inability to help himself. A person may or may not be helpless at any given time but the condition of helplessness informs the belief system of a person that he is helpless and can do nothing about it. I’ve had times in my life when I “felt” helpless. This has always been, however, the result of isolated situations that created a feeling of being unable to help myself in that specific incident. Time, and the ability to devise a way through the situation, led me back to feeling I could do something about my it.

Helplessness, though, is not so much an isolated “feeling”. Helplessness is a belief system. A condition whereby one believes that he cannot help himself, he is powerless to do anything to improve his position and it produces a resignation to one’s fate. Helplessness can become a lifestyle that controls every aspect of your life; so much so that even when your circumstances could change and, with a little effort, everything could improve and be better for you, you don’t have the inner strength or confidence to do those things to make it happen. Helplessness is a product of being disenfranchised, robbed of the opportunities that can increase your capacity and belief in having the ability to change your situation.

Can we “teach” people to be helpless? Can we place them in systems that divide, separate and choose for them who they are, what they can be and what they can’t be? Can systems that we force on people make their decisions for them at an early age and be so overwhelming that it informs their development as a person and instills in them a belief system that makes them suffer from helplessness? Is there such a condition as “learned” helplessness (focus on the word learned)?

I am not a behavioral theorist. I highly regard those who study the human condition and help us understand how and why people function and relate to the world around them. And I don’t count myself among those intellectuals. But I do study the work. And it’s fascinating.  Some studies showed that, particularly with animal subjects, if that subject were placed in an unacceptable situation for an extended period of time, even when the unacceptable elements of the situation were later removed, the subject would not make the effort or perform the actions necessary to improve or change their personal circumstances. The subjects had “learned” to be helpless, that they could do nothing to change their situation. They no longer blamed the unacceptable elements for their plight; they instead BELIEVED they were helpless, no matter what. They suffered from “learned helplessness”.

When I read these things, I naturally, as an educator, apply what I learn to my own field of research. Can we “teach” people to be helpless, if we place them in unacceptable situations that can disenfranchise them, rob them of the opportunity to develop as a learner with the capacity to learn more and do more? Could that be one of the reasons we see more and more students disengaging from an educational process? Why our numbers of dropouts keep increasing? Why even the ones who remain in our classrooms eventually disengage from the process? Why learning loses its excitement and creative potential in a learner?

I believe we have huge populations of students in our day suffering from learned helplessness. As I’ve stated before, our current system of education is a teaching system, used primarily for management of huge numbers of students. It’s not a learning system designed to personalize and engage with every individual. It cannot meet the demands of the 21st century if it refuses to change or transform into a system that can leverage all we have available to us now. Teaching systems teach and do it well. That does not mean learners learn. And, when they don’t, it’s become very easy to blame them. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. They become victims of learned helplessness and our future could be filled with generations and entire layers of society that have learned that they are helpless and will walk through life being helpless because that’s what they BELIEVE. 

Sometimes I think we are too uncomfortable with the idea that every person has the potential to succeed. I often ask educators, when speaking to a large group, what would happen if everyone in your class received an “A”. To a person, they always get uncomfortable and tell me that their principal will probably schedule a meeting with them. Why, I ask. To throw a party? To hand you a trophy? To congratulate you on being the consummate teacher? No. They don’t see that as being the outcome of the meeting. The principal wants to meet with them to discover what went wrong. To find at what point they dropped their standards, made everything so easy that everybody could pass. To uncover their lack of ability to be a real teacher. If you’re a real teacher, there will be no way that everybody can succeed. The idea is uncomfortable and flies in the face of good education in this country. We even do it at high levels. When too many students succeed on state testing, well, it must be because we’ve made the test too easy. So, we change it, pay huge amounts of money for huge numbers of professionals to design test questions that will trip them up, all under the umbrella of critical thinking. We cannot have everyone passing. We can even assign percentages of expected failures for every class or teacher. If everyone succeeds, it’s too uncomfortable. A system designed around the teaching process will always focus on the wrong thing in the 21st century. Teaching large numbers of learners, where every learner is paced to the group, and the pace demands every learner’s compliancy to the system, produces a certain number of failures. And, we are comfortable with that because it means we taught.

THEY NEED TO LEARN. And, though we may have had the excuse of not being able to expect a human teacher to differentiate between every learner in the past, we no longer have that luxury. Students who have the cognitive capacity to accelerate their learning have the right to be involved in a learning system that allows them to do that, instead of being frustrated with a paced system that slows them up and holds them back. Why should we care? Only if we need to make sure it’s managed and the teaching is organized in our comfortable classroom. Let too many of them get ahead and it becomes unmanageable and my organized lesson plan can just be thrown out the window. Students who have need of additional assistance to succeed have the right to be involved in a learning system that allows them to get that, instead of being frustrated with a paced system that keeps moving forward, leaving them behind. They deserve the engagement of educators without relegating them to an “alternative” status. Educators need to be engaged with them. But, we have to finish the chapter, finish the section, and finish the book. And, those in the middle? They have learned to keep the pace, navigate the system, learn the teacher. Is that engagement with exciting learning process?

In this day, every kid can learn. And every kid should learn. Remember, it’s not the teacher at fault. It’s the system and the refusal to transform the system. I don’t have the mistaken idea that I’m saying anything new. However, what I do ask is this: Why aren’t we doing it?

Learned helplessness. I truly believe we have elements in our adopted system of education that teach children and adolescents to develop belief systems that trap them in a lifetime of learned helplessness. And, I believe that we need to stop flooding new technology into our broken system just so we can look cool and innovative. Looking cool isn’t what we’re after. Every kid succeeding, every kid making an “A” if you will. If we create mastery systems designed to ensure that every student masters what they should know, and we design the entire learning system around progress in a personalized environment that allows teachers to actually individualize their encouragement, their shepherding, on each child, future generations will recognize us as the educators who equipped our nation to step into, and benefit from, every resource at our disposal. Knowing it is one thing; it’s only the doing of it that matters now.