Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer School - Day Thirteen - Learned Helplessness

My colleague-across-the-hall, Blair Miller, and I talk a lot about the culture of learned helplessness in our school. Basically, it comes from teachers being too helpful. So when we actually ask students to think for themselves or work through a problem, they have no motivation, no skills, no idea what to do. The default response is to ask for help and expect the teacher to do most of the work for them. And why not? That's the way it has been for years.

The danger of this crystallized for me today when my summer school class wrote a chapter test.
UPDATE: Day after test. It's happening again right now. For a garden design project, a student is asking me how to fit a 25x40 foot rectangle onto a grid that is 26x42 squares. It takes us 5 minutes to figure out. And he still wants confirmation as he crosses out the extra rows. AARGH!
The most common question during the test was, "How do I do this again?" And there was a sense of expectation that I would just give them the answer. And frustration and bafflement when I walked away instead.
UPDATE: I just went to check on the student's progress. He had crossed out 3 rows instead of 2 to get a 25x39 rectangle. Then he accused me of not explaining it right. His friend says, "We're A&W math (remedial). What do you expect?" I expect you to be able to subtract! Double AARGH!
I know the fault lies with me not with the students. If they engage in this learned helplessness, it is because I allow it, even encourage it by my need to explain everything. I wonder if it's a control issue? I want to be in charge of what is learned and how it is learned. My way is the best. But, clearly it is not.

I see the modeling method of teaching as more than just a superior way to teach math and physics. It teaches independent learning. It forces students to wrestle with concepts and explain their thinking. It exposes misconceptions. It creates opportunities for students to build deep and rich understanding.

It allows me to be less helpful.
UPDATE: Full disclosure. Turns out I was wrong. Triple AARGH! The gird is 27x41 not 26x42. But the student still had it wrong and did not understand the concept of subtraction in this context. Why am I justifying myself? I really do need to get out of the way.


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