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Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Forgotten Half/Learned Helplessness

< Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education‎ | Forgotten Half
How do we combat learned helplessness?
Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; however, nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.

—Thomas Jefferson

"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; however, nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." This familiar quote stated by Thomas Jefferson, is relevant to the condition of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness allows an individual to believe that no matter how hard he or she tries failure will result, they feel that they have no control over any situation and that whatever it does is futile (Wikipedia). A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman is the pioneer of learned helplessness developing foundational experiments and theories as an extension of his interest in depression. Learned helplessness may occur in three states: personal, they may see themselves as the problem; internalizing the problem, pervasive, they may see the problem as affecting all aspects of life, permanent, they may see the problem as unchanging (Wikipedia). This condition may affect the way that one may think, apply themselves and/or achieve. Learned helplessness is also a motivational problem where one might have failed in a task or two in the past which has made that individual believe that they are incapable to do anything in order to improve their performance in that task(s) (Seligman, 1988). This is detrimental to children's development throughout life if it is not fixed appropriately. If humans feel as though they cannot control their environment, this lack of control will impair learning in certain situations.


An Encounter with Learned HelplessnessEdit

Within education and in our everyday lives, we encounter various examples of learned helplessness. A classic example of learned helplessness is from the motion picture Freedom Writers. The students allowed their ethnicity, their economic status, and their social environment to determine the fate of their success. The students allowing these things to determine their destiny and exhibited behavior of pervasive and permanent learned helplessness. Often, members of the same social environment think in similar patterns, drawing the same inferences and or conclusion. With pervasive learned helplessness they see no way out of their situation and at a dead in, and in permanent learned helplessness they felt that their problems were unchanging.

Many teachers like Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers, have a passion for teaching and fostering academic achievement within the classroom. In many cases, we as educators are the only source of hope for our students. Teaching is a profession that encounters a variety of obstacles within the classroom, such as students not being an active participant in class, lack of motivation, and students who have no desire to learn. A student will live up or down to the expectations that others have for them. Thus, if a person expects great things from a student, great things will result. Unfortunately, however, if a person expects little from a student, little will result. Ultimately, a lack of expectations will have a negative effect on a student's self esteem.

Empowered to be HopefulEdit

How do we as teachers empower students to succeed? Research found from The Forum for Youth Investment (2005), in their work with the Carnegie Schools for a New Society initiative, developed a four-part framework to represent the range of strategies for engaging young people in the educational experience.

1. Engaging youth in their own learning requires a balance of challenging, relevant learning experiences that offer multiple avenues for student choice and responsibility through cooperative, project-based, and active learning. This includes opportunities to select content, set learning goals, ask questions, reflect on their learning, practice communication and problem-solving skills, and assume leadership roles in the classroom. 268 NASSP Bulletin Vol. 91 No. 3 September 2007

2. Youth engagement in their peers’ learning means creating opportunities for cooperative learning between students and empowering students to serve as positive role models, mentors, coaches, and conflict mediators. Such opportunities can include students’ supporting struggling peers and students’ assessing one another’s work and progress. Creating these opportunities requires that adults provide the support and development opportunities young people need to successfully assume these roles. This connects directly to teaching and learning and requires structuring classrooms in ways that encourage interaction among students and provide multiple learning opportunities for students with varied learning styles.

3. Engaging youth in improving educational opportunities means giving young people clear opportunities to share responsibility for school and community reform and improvement processes aimed at increasing achievement for all students. This requires well-thought-out strategies at the school, district, community, state, and national levels that allow youth to partner with adults as leaders in the process of change or continuous improvement in their schools. These strategies can include youth representation in adult structures or youth-led structures and processes with well-defined roles and responsibilities for youth in creating, shaping, and defining policies and practices related to their educational experiences (NASSP Bulletin Vol. 91 No. 3 September 2007).

4. Engaging young people in the community and civic life can include multiple avenues, such as service learning, internships, community action research projects, and community organizing. This strategy connects school- and community based learning experiences, creating opportunities for students to link classroom learning to lived experiences. At the heart of all four strategies is the learning environment and the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about young people: how they learn, what they think, what they need from schools and adults, what they believe in, and what they are capable of doing. These values set the tone for how all members of the school community interact with one another, both inside and outside the classroom (Forum for Youth Investment, 2005).

The above four part frame work can be used as a proactive method in reversing the cycle and combating learned helplessness.

Reversing the Cycle/Combating the ProblemEdit

Here are several tips for combating learned helplessness:

  • Set high expectations for your students
  • Let your students know that you see them as capable individuals
  • Encourage your students to try it on their own
  • Provide multiple opportunities for student trials
  • Positively reinforce the student's efforts
  • If completing the entire task is not a possibility, encourage the student to complete the parts that he or she can do
  • Encourage the student to try a bit more with each success
  • If you must complete a task due to time constraints, let the student know that he or she will be expected to do the task when time is not an issue
  • Allow your students to see you struggle with a difficult task

Multiple Choice QuestionsEdit

Click to reveal the answer.

Thomas Jefferson stated that "Nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." What can stop the man with the right mental attitude?
A. Peers
B. Teachers
C. Nothing
D. Yourself

C. Nothing

The pioneer of the theory learned helplessness is none other than?
A. Thomas Jefferson
B. Martin Seligman
C. Erin Gruwell
D. Francine Joselowsky

B. Martin Seligman

Learned helplessness occurs in three states. Which of these is not a state of learned helplessness?
A. Problematic
B. Personal
C. Pervasive
D. Permanent

A. Problematic

Which student is suffering from learned helplessness?
A. The student who completes all work and looks for extra credit assignments.
B. The student that is the class President and is involved in all activities.
C. The student who puts their head down on the desk while waiting for everyone else to complete a test.
D. The student who is lacking motivation, has low self esteem and show no interest in class?

D. The student who is lacking motivation, has low self esteem and show no interest in class?

Which is not an example of empowering a student to be successful?
A. Engaging in improving educational opportunities.
B. Engaging student in their own learning.
C. Refusing to build a relationship with a student.
D. Refusing to give up on a student.

C. Refusing to build a relationship with a student.

Essay QuestionEdit

As a first year teacher, you have a similar class that was featured in the clip. How would you embrace diversity and inspire dreams for this class of students who are negative, fearful and hopeless about making it to school on a daily basis?

Just because your students are mad, negative, or hopeless, does not mean they shouldn’t learn. If anything, these are the children, in which it is very important they learn. In order to have upward social mobility and get out of the depressive situation, they will need education. Through education, students can get scholarships, grants, and experience many other opportunities. Education can provide students with work while in school or job prospects for after graduation. Many colleges have job fairs on campus which connect students with future employment. Getting good grades can also build their resumes, which can help the students who need to get jobs in high school, or the students that are not planning on going to college, get jobs right out of school. Not many people are going to feel sorry for someone that does not try, and then complains about what they don’t have. I would give the students examples of experiences of several individuals that I knew and how their choices taken in education affected the outcome of their lives. I would also consider having guess speakers from multiple backgrounds come in, and tell about their experiences and accomplishments through education. Once the students meet people that are similar to them, that have been successful through hard work and education, they might change their opinion about the importance of school. This will give them hope and motivation to try to do well.


  • Feist, M., Joselowsky, F., Raynor, A., & Nichols-Solomon, R. (2007). Building a system of excellent high schools: A framework and tool for discussion and action. New York: Academy for Educational Development and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.
  • Framework for Success for All Students. (2006). Collected papers from the technical support team for the Schools for a New Society Initiative and CarnegieCorporation of New York. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.
  • Klem, A., & Connell, J. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Philadelphia: Institute for Research and Reform in Education.
  • NASSP Bulletin Vol. 91 No. 3 (September 2007).
  • Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helpessness. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • Ramirez, E., Maldonado, A., & Martos, R. (1992). Attribution modulate immunization against learned helplessness in humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 139-146.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (1975). Learned helplessness: Depression, development and death. W. H. Freeman: New York Stipek, D. E. P. (1988). Motivation to learning. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.
  • University of Pennsylvania. (January 1998)
  • Wikipedia. "Learned Helplessness". 20, 2007)