Learnt helplessness



Founded in 1995, the Global Issues Special Interest Group attracted a large number of participants to its Pre-Conference Event at IATEFL this year. With a mission to promote understanding and stimulate awareness of global issues and global education within language teaching, the GI SIG used the PCE to focus on what was clearly a hot topic for many teachers – Learnt Helplessness.

What exactly is Learnt Helplessness?

According to SIG coordinator Margit Szesztay, who opened the PCE this year, it is a passivity that is bred. After all, as Einstein once said, common sense is merely prejudices accumulated by age 18.

Learnt helplessness is thus a quitting; a giving up that has a world view that whatever they do, they can’t achieve it. So they don’t even try to do things for themselves. The lack of trying leads to a lack of positive results, which in turn confirms that they can’t achieve anything.

But how did we end up with such a perceived lack of control of our lives?

One of the main speakers of the PCE, Jim Scrivener, suggested that it is the way that we organise our children that inevitably leads to learnt helplessness.

From a young age, our children are repeatedly told of what they cannot do and what they must not do. Encouraging us to see how we are part of the problem, Jim took us a step further in the direction of finding out how we can be part of the solution.


Learnt helplessness 3

Amongst those teacher and learner beliefs that came under the microscope was the concept of ‘learner centredness’. Although often bandied about as a mark of good teaching, the term ‘learner centredness’ has commonly been misinterpreted to refer to the use of ‘pairwork’ and such physical ‘symptoms’.

How can we truly achieve ‘learner centredness’ in the classroom?

Here, Jim offers us his 21 steps towards learner centredness:

1. Start small
2. Offer binary choices
3. Allow divided outcomes
4. If you offer a choice, make it genuine
5. Make any constraints absolutely clear (then discuss where we can go from there)
6. Don't make a big deal about choices
7. Get students to notice that not everyone has the same viewpoint
8. Avoid wordings that imply that the teachers is someone who needs to be pleased
9. Get students discussing some decisions
10. Demonstrate that you are listening, but also have an opinion
11. Don't always go with the majority
12. Ask different people to make each decision
13. Don't let the decision making get boring
14. Restrain yourself from being the power, the authority, the decider.
15. Don't 'save' them
16. Offer more decisions as time goes on
17. Offer more important decisions
18. Train your learners in listening and negotiating skills
19. Trains students to evaluate themselves
20. Hand over a big decision and a strategy for deciding
21. Ask very big questions


Learnt helplessness 4

Continuing on from Jim’s talk, Adrian Underhill showed the audience how some classroom activities can be used to focus on cognitive processes, and not the result. Members of the audience were given a limited period of time to memorize a range of lexical items on a slide and then time to reproduce what they remember. However, Adrian was less interested in the number of items we could memorize, but instead had us thinking about the strategies we used in order to complete the task.

Taking a rather different view of the term ‘learnt helplessness’, Paul Shaw came on after lunch to speak about the importance of raising awareness of disability issues in the language classroom. Often misunderstood as a depressing topic that we cannot do much about, we teachers avoid dealing with such subjects in the classroom, and along with our students, feel like we are unable to go beyond the assumptions made about the disabled.

Using activities and demonstrations that help put the students in the shoes of the disabled person, Paul showed the audience how one can help our learners to not only empathize with the difficulties that our society places on the disabled, but also how we can move our learners into taking action.

Learnt helplessness 6

Judging from Jim, Adrian and Paul’s significantly different talks, the term ‘learnt helplessness’ clearly means very different things to different people.

To me, learnt helplessness indicates a certain habitualized dependence on the teacher, the boss, the authority figure. It is the shying away from creative and critical thinking in favour of a ‘safer’ path where one is told what to do and how to do it.

This is without doubt bred by the education system and culture that I was brought up on in the East, where collectivist group thinking and unquestioning obedience to authority are seen as desirable traits.

Coupled with the belief that education is merely about the transmission of knowledge, which is processed and memorized – often through rote learning techniques – this leads to an expectation that the teacher’s job is mainly to ‘spoon-feed’ the learner with the necessary information, telling the learner how to think, instead of facilitating the development of one’s cognitive and emotive skills through an approach based on learner-centered discovery and task-based learning.

Learnt helplessness 7

When trying to conduct a needs analysis, have you ever heard the dreaded, ‘Why are you asking me? You’re the teacher. You’re supposed to tell me what I need!’?

Or when helping learners improve their communicative competence through the use of tasks, have you ever seen get frustrated because they simply can’t see how they can apply any of this to the English exam coming up next week?

Or when carrying out a Guided Discovery lesson so as to enable learners to discover language rules for themselves, have you ever been told, ‘Just tell me the rules! Just give them to me already! I don’t want to discover them for myself!’?

Learnt helplessness may be a passivity that is bred.
But the insistence to stay passive can certainly get aggressive.

And sometimes, all we can do is continue to fight the waves of external influences, such as discrete-item state exams, parents’ expectations that are based upon their own educational backgrounds, and learner prejudices, in order to truly help our learners become more autonomous and less helpless in their own development.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: http://chiasuanchong.com