How to avoid learned helplessness

31st October 2008 at 00:00

I used to have a colleague who had a fraught relationship with any form of technology. He hinted that, early in his career, he had an unfortunate encounter with a duplicating machine, but never disclosed the horror. When computers arrived, he resisted them as long as possible but eventually agreed to have a go.

With intensive secretarial support, he managed to master the opening of emails, but composing and sending them was a step too far. Should anyone have suggested that his lectures would be enhanced by a PowerPoint presentation, a breakdown might well have followed.

His condition could be described as a form of "learned helplessness". He had convinced himself early on that technology was beyond him and, when he could not avoid using it, he routinely turned to others for assistance. Their well-intentioned helpfulness simply reinforced his reluctance to address the underlying causes of his technophobia.

Some parents and teachers unwittingly promote learned helplessness in the young. Parents who provide a taxi service for every outing are not doing their children any favours. Apart from the benefits of exercise, learning to negotiate buses and trains, including the risks, should be part of growing up.

Again, it is a poor preparation for adult life if youngsters never have to cook a meal or learn to use the washing machine. Cooking has become a spectator sport. People spend hours watching top chefs preparing elaborate dishes on television, while tucking into takeaways or ready-made meals from the supermarket.

Many parents also employ tutors at the first indication that their offspring are having difficulty with school work. I hadn't realised how extensive this was until I heard a recent lecture by Stephen Ball of the London Institute of Education, reported in The TESS on October 10. In addition to private tutors available locally, there are many online subscription services which offer intensive support on all areas of the curriculum, as well as in generic skills (how to study, problem solving, and so on).

No doubt, some are useful, but they often convey the misleading impression that learning is always easy and that all that is required is the acquisition of a few tricks of the trade - which will be revealed for a fee.

Teachers too - for the best motives - can fall into the trap of short-circuiting the learning process by providing too much to pupils capable of working things out themselves. Worthwhile learning is challenging, and the process of grappling with new material is what makes the exercise educative. Being supplied with an easy route to the outcome may have short-term benefits - in the shape of examination results - but these are likely to dissipate quickly.

Teachers are under pressure to increase pass rates, and the consumerist climate which prevails in our society encourages some parents (and some pupils) to assume that it is the duty of schools to deliver the goods. It is tempting to see connections between this and the get- rich-quick philosophy which has been one element in the financial crisis.

If we are serious about encouraging youngsters to become independent learners, we should be careful to avoid the promotion of learned helplessness.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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