As I noted in a previous post, I have it easy in a lot ways. Unlike a lot of teachers, I don’t lack for classroom resources, and the majority of my students are motivated—if not intrinsically, then extrinsically by parents who are concerned about the return on their sizable education investment. As you might imagine, though, with all of the advantages of teaching in independent schools come certain disadvantages.

One of the most frustrating things I deal with is the student who expects to have everything handed to him or her, not only in life, but in the classroom as well. Although I hate to sound alarmist, I fear that this behavior has serious implications for our democratic society. If all students are drilled on how to prepare for a multiple choice test but never learn to think for themselves, to problem-solve, and even occasionally to fail (and to learn from their failure), what kind of leaders can we expect in the future? What kind of citizens can we expect in the future?

Over the course of this year, I have become increasingly frustrated with the amount of “learned helplessness” I see in my classroom. Now, I am not a psychologist—only a college graduate who took Psychology 101 and has read a few books that touch on the subject, but if you’re not familiar with it, allow me to offer some background.

The first research on learned helplessness occurred back in the 1960s. In the first part of the experiment, psychologists placed dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group received an electrical shock, but they could stop the shock by pressing a lever. The dogs in the second group were actually wired to the first group. These dogs received shocks as well, but they had no control over the duration. The shocks for these dogs ended only when the dogs in the first group pressed the lever. The dogs in the third group were the control group; they were placed in harnesses but received no shock.

In the second part of the experiment, all of the dogs were placed in the same environment. They each received a shock, but they could easily “escape” the shock by jumping over a low barrier. What these psychologists found was that the dogs in the second group (those who had no control over the duration of the previous shocks) simply succumbed to the pain. Rather than jumping over the barrier, the dogs simply whimpered. From this, the psychologists concluded that these dogs exhibited “learned helplessness,” an acquired inability to take control of an adverse situation and better themselves.

Over the last four decades, the term has been used outside the realm of laboratory psychology. In politics, social welfare programs are often cited as a contributor to “learned helplessness.” (The term “nanny state” seems to be an especially popular refrain among certain segments of the electorate these days.) In education, the phrase has been applied to those students with ADD/ADHD or learning disabilities. The theory in any case, I suppose, is that once someone learns to get by with “help” from someone or something else (in the form of food stamps, Ritalin, or testing accommodations), they can no longer manage without them.

In my classroom, I use it to mean those students who have come to expect their education to be spoon-fed to them in easily digestible, study guide-sized morsels. Many of my students—even some of the brightest ones—are fundamentally uncomfortable with uncertainty in the classroom. Upon being told that there is not a “right answer,” they’re unsure of how to proceed. When confronted with an unfamiliar assignment or an unforeseen problem, they seize up. When asked to think, they say (literally, sometimes), “I don’t know how to do that.” Some of this is certainly developmental, but I think a lot of it has more to do with nurture than with nature.

In my case, it would be easy to ascribe this problem to socio-cultural factors. Many of my students come from wealthy families, and frankly, they often do get whatever they ask for. I can look out my classroom window and see several student cars whose monthly payments are probably as much as my mortgage. Most of them are good kids, but by any traditional definition, they are what you might call “spoiled.” So wouldn’t it follow logically that these students would be spoiled in the classroom as well? Perhaps, but I think this is too simplistic. I suspect that many teachers—regardless of their school culture—see this sort of behavior.

Another possible explanation involves looking in the mirror. Perhaps we—as educators—are partially to blame. Over the last ten years especially, the push toward standardized education and high-stakes testing, not to mention the more recent call for “merit pay” for higher test scores, has created a monster wherein teachers are forced (or at least greatly rewarded) for “teaching to the test.” Growing up in that sort of environment, students come to expect their teachers to “teach them what they need to know.” Although the pressures of state-mandated exams are greatly reduced in independent schools, they’re replaced in some ways by the pressures of AP performance. But of course, life is not multiple-choice, and students need to learn this.

This year, I’ve encountered a couple of students with extreme cases of learned helplessness, and they have challenged me tremendously. Perhaps the most frustrating has been a very intelligent student who couldn’t seem to complete her work on time, yet never asked for help. She received a failing grade for the first grading period, primarily as a result of late penalties. In the end, her parents intervened on her behalf, concerned that her grades in my class would prevent her from getting into the college of her choice.

They scheduled meetings with my school’s academic dean, as well as with my department chair. In both cases, they stated that they did not want their daughter present, and in both cases they took issue with my grading standards. When, in the second meeting, I asked why their daughter hadn’t turned in her work on time, they said that she had seemed unsure of herself when confronted with my open-ended writing assignments. In the course of working on the assignment, she grew increasingly frustrated, “hit a wall,” and simply stopped working. Finally, nearly two weeks after the deadline, she submitted an introductory paragraph and some sketchy notes. The parents believed that my grading was too harsh, but it didn’t occur to the parents that this submission was exactly why their daughter needed to be in the meeting. Why hadn’t she asked me for help?

In reflecting on this situation, I see two possibilities. The first is predictable: the student has “learned” to take the easy road. Why should she take responsibility for her education when Mom and Dad will do it for her? I think there is an element of this at work, but as above, I think it’s too easy to just blame the parents and be done with it. In fact, I do believe the parents are to blame, but I’m afraid there’s much more to the story here. I say “afraid,” because the more likely explanation is much more tragic than a “lazy teenager” who skates by while Mom and Dad pressure her teachers for better grades.

Again, this is an extreme example of the type of behavior I see on an almost-daily basis, but my fear is that this student has come to believe that she has little control over her own education. I don’t mean to suggest that these are bad parents. On the contrary, they obviously care for their daughter and want what is best for her, but in advocating so forcefully on her behalf, they explicitly prevented her from advocating for herself. And so nearly a month passed before the student came in to meet with me about her writing. The student simply whimpered until someone else tried to press the lever.

Although I’ve often wondered, I have no idea when or where this started for my student—but that’s really not important for my purposes. What is important is: where do we go from here? The entire situation was incredibly taxing in terms of time, energy, and even emotion. It strained the parent-student-teacher relationship, and although the student has finally started meeting with me to get some help with her writing, I can still sense that she resents my earlier grading. Her parents’ strong involvement reinforced (if implicitly) her perception that I was wrong to grade so harshly.

In reflecting on this situation, I’m reminded of a talk that I was fortunate to attend earlier this year. The speaker was Robert Evans, an organizational psychologist/consultant and the author of several books, including Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing. I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I can gather, the talk followed the general outline.

According to Evans, from the time they’re born until the time they graduate from high school, students spend only about 10% of their time in schools. As a teacher, it would be easy to interpret this statistic as “Aha! So it’s the parents’ problem.” And in large part, it is. According to Evans, though, teachers have a role to play here.

In Evans’ view, teachers are burdened by perpetual guilt and inadequacy—“Why don’t all of my students learn as much as I want them to? And why couldn’t I reach that one kid?” (I don’t know if you have these feelings, but I certainly do from time to time.) Therefore, Evans says, it’s incredibly distressing for teachers when parents become a “problem,” and particularly when they ask us “Why aren’t you doing more for my child?”

The premise of Evans’ talk, however, was that although they are sincere, parents are equally distressed, because it’s becoming harder and harder to be a confident parent in the 21st century. Even among “good parents,” he says, there is a “rising tide of anxiety,” and there are two reasons for this. First, the rate of change (social, economic, technological, etc.) in our society is incredible and constantly increasing. Parents, like teachers, can’t always keep up. Second, the choices for kids (of cultures, of ideas, of educations, of futures) are many.

Gone are the days of finish your homework, eat your vegetables, do your chores, and head to bed. The “kids these days” are plugged in to people and ideas from around the world, and although that’s exciting, it also makes it difficult for parents to assure a child of his or her future. It sounds a little nihilistic, maybe, but I buy it. Parents are worried that they’re not getting the job done as well as they should be, and so they expect teachers to take on some of that responsibility. Unfortunately, we don’t really know what the future holds either.

In any event, what I took away from the talk was that most “problem parents” are sincere but anxious (if wrong), and Evans says that teachers sometimes have to “parent the parents.” This does not mean to act in a condescending manner toward them, but to make sure the expectations are clear and then engage them in a conversation about where they are and how to get to where they want to be. In the case I described above, this was clearly necessary.

The parents needed to understand that there were clear expectations. The student needed to hear (again) that clear expectations had been set, and that she had failed to meet them. And both parents and student needed to hear that past failures would not define the future. I made it clear to everyone involved that I was more than willing to work with the student on her weaknesses, but that she had to take the first step toward success.

I can force-feed a student names, dates, and facts, I suppose, but this is antithetical to a classroom model of democracy. I can’t encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and personal responsibility on one hand and force a child to do his or her work on the other. (And, by the way, if no one can predict accurately what the future holds, is it more important that we teach students a bevy of historical “facts” or the skills to wrestle with uncertainty?)

Although it’s not what I signed up for, I have no problem with this idea of “parenting the parents”—as long as the student is also part of that conversation. Education is a partnership, to be sure, and everyone needs a place at the table. But I get a little bit confused on how we intend to prepare a child for an unknowable future by solving all of his or her problems behind closed doors. That just won’t work. Like those dogs in the 1960s, students need to know that even though education sometimes delivers a “shock,” the levers are always there. At the end of the day, though, only the students can push them, and sometimes you have to push pretty hard. That’s a lesson from the lab experiment of “life,” and one needs to be taught in the 21st century.

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