In my experience learnt helplessness is particularly prevalent in Computing/ICT. In the last three years I have taught nothing but computer science in six primary schools, over 1200 hours and have seen learnt helplessness in varying degrees in all of my schools.
In this article I will look at what learnt helplessness is and how it will manifests in computing lessons. I will also suggest reasons as to why pupils have learnt this strategy and offer ways to promote independence, resilience and problem solving. I will also look at how learnt helplessness can also manifest in teachers and teaching support staff and suggest ways to help them move on.
Learnt helplessness is a strategy for getting other people to solve problems for you. In the classroom, for pupils, these others may be the teacher, LSA, classroom assistant or other pupils.
In computing/ICT learnt helplessness can be seen in various ways. Sweet helplessness often manifests to the teacher as a pupil putting on a sweet helpless voice and declaring they are stuck. Aggressive helplessness manifests with a cross tone and the implication that they think the work is ‘stupid’ or they don’t get it. Being stuck is never a problem but if you ask what they are stuck on and the pupil cannot tell you or describe the problem or they give vague indications that they are stuck on everything then there is a good chance they are using learnt helplessness to get you to solve their problem. Similar strategies will often be used with their peers, tailored to make the problem solver feel valued, superior or pressured into helping.
The problem is that many teachers and pupils will respond to this strategy in Computing/ICT by solving the problem for the pupil. Often excellent teachers, who wouldn’t dream of doing work for pupils in other areas of the curriculum, will jump in and solve the problem for the pupil. The fact that so many pupils use learnt helplessness suggests that it has been a successful strategy for many.
Getting someone else to do your work for you would be an issue in any subject, but it is the antithesis of computing science with its emphasis on problem solving and debugging. In fact to solve a problem for a child is to deny them the opportunity to debug code or fix algorithm and as such is debilitating.
How has it become so prevalent in computing/ICT? I suspect that it has grown out of teacher fear or unfamiliarity with the subject material coupled with a belief that pupils know more about technology than adults combined with an emphasis on the finished product rather than the process. All of these factors lead teachers to fix things for pupils rather than steer them to find solutions for themselves.
If we recognise this as an issue, how can we counter this and encourage resilience and problem solving?
1. Recognising that this as an issue is the first step. We can’t effect any change without recognising that something needs to change.
2. It helps to know that this will take time both to change your own practice and move pupils onto better strategies. I estimate it took me several months to change my own practice and about five weeks to change pupils in KS2 where learnt helplessness had become a way of life.
3. It is very important to establish a positive class attitude towards problem solving. Computing science is very useful in that it calls errors bugs and finding errors debugging. Although all bugs are caused by humans, the language is much more impersonal than mistakes which imply blame or fault. Using bug and debugging language is helpful. It is also important to let pupils know that mistakes/bugs are a normal part of computing, that they are to be expected, that professional programmers write code that have bugs all the time and that you will not be cross or upset if their work has bugs/mistakes. This for me is a mantra for new classes for the first few weeks and once they know I mean it there is collective sigh of relief!
4. Alongside this I also promote the idea that it is not my job to fix their algorithms or debug their code. It is my job to promote useful strategies that they can use to fix things themselves. So when they come to me they know they are looking for strategies to find and fix things themselves.
5. For those pupils transitioning from learnt helplessness to useful problem solving they need to see what they are doing. I have asked pupils; ‘are you trying to get me to fix your code?’ ‘Are you trying to get me to solve the problem for you?’ In the same way that we couldn’t move on until we recognised the issue, some pupils won’t either. Of course good teachers do this tactfully and with regards to pupils known issues but an element of challenge is inevitable to identify the issue.
6. Encourage the class to join you in this by putting a ban on doing things for other people. They can describe what to do but are not allowed to do it for them or give them a full solution to programming solutions. As you model this they will reflect this attitude to their peers. Having a ban on touching anyone else’s mouse, keyboard or touchscreen is a good start. I often compare this to writing in someone else’s maths or literacy exercise book.
7. Move pupils away from language that personifies digital machines. “My computer hates me,” is typical. Miles Berry describes computers as deterministic which means that if all the inputs are the same you will always get the same output. Personification encourages pupils to think that an answer might not be available due to the capriciousness of the machine, an attitude that is anti problem solving and frankly incorrect.
8. Don’t neglect the other adults in the class, all your good work could be being undone by your LSA or classroom assistant. Train them to help using good strategies and hints rather than solutions. If you are providing training on the new curriculum don’t neglect your class room assistants, they are important.
Finally you may notice learnt helplessness in teachers and learning support assistants. Is it worth the hassle to challenge this? As a parent I know that my children don’t do what I say but what I do. I lead mostly by example or lack of it as my wife will testify. This is just as true in the classroom or computer suite. Of course we need to be tactful and recognise the good practice of teachers and the excellent problem solving strategies in other curriculum areas, but if we don’t identify the problem, nothing will change. I have found that talking about my own struggle to change has enabled others to do likewise.