Learned Helplessness: We Need To Stop Modeling This!

photo via redcrashpad's Flickr stream

As we continue to move forward with technology integration in our schools, or any iniative for that matter, it is imperative that we consider the message that our actions send to others.  For me, I am constantly worried about the message that is trickling down to our students.

We need to be wary of the fact that as our schools change to stay/become relevant that some of our old ways of dealing with problems should also change.  I am sure there are many examples of learned helplessness, but in this case I am talking about dealing with technological issues.

The OLD Way

If the default way of responding to a technology problem is to call or e-mail someone then you are not modeling the problem-solving mentality we need to infuse in our students.

The NEW Way

OK, this is not really that new which leads to my frustration for those who do not make a little effort to solve problems on their own.  What did you do to solve the problem on your own before you called or e-mailed?  The first question asked by someone working in a support position should be “How have you tried to resolve the issue on your own?”

What do we ask of our students when they get stuck?


  1. Great question, Patrick! One of the things that astonished me when I left the classroom to work for the Tech Dept was the amount of things they Googled to find solutions for. I had no idea! So, as I do PD throughout our district for Ed Tech, I try to let the teachers know that our IT’s don’t have all the answers, and show them some relevant forums that could help them with finding the answers. Sometimes I make the inquiry on the forum for them, but send them to the forum to watch the responses.

    Since over half my time is spent in classrooms, I get to facilitate the troubleshooting process with the class as they occur. Even though I want everything to go smoothly, I also secretly like when these teachable moments come up so I can take them through the troubleshooting process… Typically starting with searching a forum discussion for our question and answers. Sometimes we need to place our own question, and then I leave monitoring the discussion to a few of the students and teacher. When I check back with them, they almost always tell me they couldn’t believe how quickly someone answered them and they were glad someone showed them where to look for solutions.

    Another thing that I’ve seen “trickle up” our K-12 district is students ask 3 others first before asking the teacher. This started in elmentary classrooms and have heard it in our secondary classes as well. Often times, the students have solutions I’ve never thought of, so they are the ones I turn to before placing a ticket for help. So, why not take a moment to brainstorm some possible solutions? It might not be directly tested, but it does model collaboration, problem solving, … (21st century skills). Bottom line is, it’s worth the few minutes it takes, and will save time in the long run because our students will learn to overcome “hiccups” on their own.

    Kind regards,
    Tracy Watanabe

    July 13, 2011
    • Carol Osborne said:

      Barbara Collaroso, a writer of parenting books, talks about how we cannot give children self-esteem. (Although an entire generation of parents tried.) True self-esteem comes from tackling something that’s a little, or maybe a lot, too hard and succeeding. Success doesn’t have to come from the first try. Yes, embrace the struggle. Encourage, and expect, kids to struggle. I am not suggesting that we don’t differentiate for those who need scaffolding in order to succeed. Kids with learning disabilities experience lots of struggle. Our more able students need to struggle too.


      July 16, 2011
  2. rob said:

    when in doubt. . reboot. . .

    July 13, 2011
  3. Thanks for the comments Tracy. Modeling the trouble-shooting process is so important and I agree that we need to look for opportunities to publicize “teachable moments.” The recommendation of asking three other students is such a good one! I will be passing that along as a practice that is great to reinforce with technology issues or any other problem that comes up in regards to teaching and learning.

    We need to embrace the struggle!

    July 13, 2011
  4. Dan Boyle said:

    Great post, Patrick, but I like your last comment “We need to embrace the struggle!” more. As I tried to include more technology into my history curriculum this year, I watched as some students simply chose not to participate rather than ask questions for help. I believe that because we (and by “we” I mean all of us in education) have rarely put the students in a position to find things on their own, primarily because of our fear that they will perform poorly on a test somewhere, they are unable to handle any “glitches” that come along in their own learning. They are unwilling to “struggle” to work things out and find the right answer or try things that are new because they have never had to before. “We” have always held there hand and had them do things “our way” because we believe that is what will work best for them, rather than have them figure out their own path and a way that works for them. They have no coping mechanisms. “Struggle,” and by extension the possibility of mistakes, is part of learning and part of why we feel so good when we accomplish something that we have worked through. They need to see us “struggling” right along with them, and that might help them to realize that they can “struggle” too.

    July 13, 2011
  5. Thanks Dan – I agree with you that we need to model this struggle for our students. We need to talk through the process that we use to work through difficult issues. If our students do not get comfortable with this they will not leave our schools with the level of resilience they need to be successful as they pursue their passions.

    July 13, 2011
  6. Leslie Pralle Keehn said:

    I would call this intellectual outsourcing… But some might argue that making the call is their step to taking care of the problem. My sink is broken, I call a plumber. My house is on fire, I call the fire dept. But I really enjoyed this post. As with previous poster, my principal has called me with computer issues. I google it and call him back. You make great points.

    July 13, 2011
  7. Amazing diologue going on in the comments here… I was intrigued by the two posts Scott McLeod posted in relationship to your post. I saw your post being about the need to change habits of troubleshooting to fit the changes of shifting to 1:1, and those new habits would be reflected in the day to day classroom procedures… which are visible by how the students respond to “hiccups” with tech.

    Yet, Scott’s two posts are about the expectation to be self-motivated to learn, problem-solve, … With which you responded with the culture of trying and failing forward (amazing post, by the way).

    From reading this correspondence, I realized the two of you are discussing how expectation influences habits and culture.

    Having the open diologue about changing and asking for input is a great example of how a healthy culture/great leadership can set expectations.

    Thanks for modeling this for me!

    Kind regards,
    Tracy Watanabe

    July 14, 2011

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