Why I Won’t Give in to Learned Helplessness (and You Shouldn’t, Either)

I don’t know when I first heard the phrase “learned helplessness” to describe our students today.  I think maybe it was when I was teaching in Boston.  It doesn’t really matter, though, because ever since I was introduced to the phrase, I’ve seen examples of it everywhere.  I’ve learned to recognize the looks of the students who aren’t putting forth their own mental effort and are simply waiting for me to do the work for them.  That look frustrates me to no end and I never give in to it.  I refuse to hand out answers, even though that would be faster and easier for both of us.

Quite frankly, learned helplessness in the high school angers me, not because of the perceived laziness of the students, but because of the disservice a culture of learned helplessness does to our teenagers!  If you’ve read my About page, you know I think teenagers are amazing, powerful people; I definitely don’t believe they’re inherently helpless, lazy bums.  But under the name of “help”, sometimes young people are held back when they should be launched onto the world!  Instead of taking advantage of the unique teen years and practicing skills they need to take on the world, they’re learning how easy it is to be helpless!  Other adults will call it laziness or lack of motivation, but all too often, I simply see teenagers choosing to be helpless because they have learned that they can get away with it.  And why wouldn’t they?  Too many times, the adults in their lives enable their helplessness.  

But maybe instead of continuing this rant, I should show you what I mean.  So here are some common examples of learned helplessness that I see almost daily.  Remember, I teach high school.  These are teenagers – the same teens that I believe in so much – doing these things.

Example 1:

I hand out a worksheet to a class.  A student asks, “What are we supposed to do?”  I ask him, “Did you read the directions?”  Sometimes I’m lucky and the student laughs and says no, reads the directions, and (because they are not confusing instructions!) the student begins working on his own.  Not this time, though.  Student resists more.  He says yes, he did read the directions, so I ask him to identify which part confuses him.  He can’t, either because he lied and didn’t actually read, or he just scanned his eyes over the page without putting forth effort to process the words; he couldn’t tell me a single word of what he read.  So I make the student read the directions aloud to me, telling him to stop when comes to the part that confuses him.  He reads straight through the directions, and ends the whole exchange with “Oh, I get it,” and starts working.

*Stuff like this happens all the time.  Most of the time students are just waiting for me to explain things to them so they don’t have to try to figure it out on their own.  I know it would be easier and faster to just explain the instructions than to go through that whole process, but I want better for my students.  I know they’re capable, so I want them to make the effort on their own.  I want them to practice reading and understanding so that when they’re handed a job description, a contract, or an employee handbook, they have both the skills and habits to read and understand instructions and policies on their own.

Example 2:

Students are working on a vocabulary assignment.  A young lady raises her hand and says “I need help.”  I walk over and ask, “what’s the problem?”  Instead of asking me a question, she points.  That’s it.  Picks a question and points to it.  I say, “Pointing to the question doesn’t tell me what the problem is.  What don’t you understand?”

“I need help,” is all she says.

“OK, but what kind of help?  I need you to ask me a question so I can answer it.”

At this point, the young lady begins pointing to vocab words on the page, asking which one is right.  I can tell her pointing is random though, with no thought process behind which word might really work.  One of the words she points to is correct, but I don’t make any indication to her of that yet, because I can tell she isn’t really thinking about it.

“I’m not going to just tell you the right answer, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”  I say, “I will help you, but you need to ask me a question so I know what kind of help your need.”

“I don’t get it.”  She still hasn’t given me anything to go on, so I make her read the question to me, which she does.  Then I ask her to put the question in her own words, but she doesn’t even try that.  Instead, she returns to her random pointing to vocab words and asking if each one is right.  I stop her again.

“No, don’t fill in the blank yet.  I’m not going to just tell you the answer; you know that.  I asked you to put the question into your own words, so do that before you point to any more words.”  Finally, she really looks at the question, and rephrases it perfectly.  “OK!” I say, “Now, which vocabulary word fits that meaning?”  She looks over at the list and after a few seconds, picks the right answer and writes in the blank without even asking me first, because she’s thought about it and she knows it’s right.

*I chose a language arts example because that’s what I teach, but I see this method used a lot when I sub math classes, too.  Kids will just write in numbers and ask if they’re right without putting in any work, hoping they’ll randomly hit on the right answer.  Like example 1, these kids are capable; they’re just resisting the effort.  In both examples, they didn’t really need my help at all – they just didn’t want to do the work.  These stall tactics must work on some adults; otherwise the students wouldn’t try them on me.  I want my students to learn that I don’t care if they fill in the right answer on a worksheet if they don’t understand why it’s right.  Adult life doesn’t have worksheets, but adult life does require problem-solving and thinking skills.  I want them to be independent thinkers, not just blindly repeating what others tell them.

Example 3:

Any student who thinks “I forgot” is a legitimate excuse for not doing homework.

“I was playing Black Ops and I forgot that I had homework.  What am I supposed to do if I forgot?”  Yes, I’ve really had a student say this to me, thinking it a legitimate excuse.  Teen readers, please tell you see how ridiculous this sounds.

“I forgot my book at my dad’s house.  How am I supposed to do the work if the book is somewhere else?”  I understand living between two different homes is difficult, and if a mistake like this happens on a rare occasion, I will have grace.  However, too many kids make this a habit or an easy excuse for not finishing work.  That’s not OK.

“You didn’t remind us yesterday that the paper was due today, so I didn’t know to finish it last night.” Nevermind that I’ve been reminding them about this paper for weeks and that the due date has been written down in handouts, on the board, and in their assignment books.  I didn’t mention it in class the day before, so I’m supposed to think it’s totally OK that they forgot to finish it.

*I can sympathize that sometimes forgetting happens.  What bugs me is that students seem to think they shouldn’t have to suffer consequences of forgetfulness.  I can give them sympathy, but I can’t give them an extension on their deadline.  Life doesn’t work like that.  Their college professors and bosses won’t appreciate forgetfulness, so I want them to learn now how to avoid forgetting to do things, and that only works when experience teaches them that forgetfulness has consequences.  And parents, please don’t try to cover for them.  They need to learn these life lessons!


When I think about my own high school teachers, I don’t always remember the content that they taught.  I don’t remember every book that I read in school, and all that AP calculus is completely gone from my head.  But I do remember the life skills.  I remember the science teacher who made us recite the definition of responsibility every day at the beginning of class.  I remember the history teacher who had us write our own exam questions, forcing us to think through what information was important and what wasn’t.  I remember the English teacher who inspired a class of sophomores into a week-long debate about a single Emily Dickinson poem even though it completely threw off his unit plan, who taught us how to engage readers in our writing through “pics”, and proved that even the “good” kids could fail a quiz because they turned around and asked their classmate for a pencil after the teacher had said not to talk.  The teachers who taught me the most were tough graders and didn’t accept excuses.  They prepared me for the world.

I don’t want my teenage students to be helpless, because helpless teens don’t change the world.  I want to work with skilled, talented teens, and every student that crosses my path has that potential.  Every student that comes into my classroom is my opportunity to make a difference.  So I will fight through the apathy and attempts to get me to feed them the answers.  I will make them think for themselves, because I want to be there to see what amazing things will happen when they do.


One thought on “Why I Won’t Give in to Learned Helplessness (and You Shouldn’t, Either)

  1. I love this. I also refuse to cater to the learned helplessness.

    My usual response is “what do you need help with?” and when they say “everything” or just “I don’t get it”, I say, “ask me a question. help me help you.”


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