Learned Helplessness





There is a Papert quote that goes something like:

“What you ought to be learning at school is that you don’t need to be taught in order to learn”.

I often wonder how many teachers realize the truth behind this quote.  I wonder how many teachers live the truth behind this quote, I suspect too few.

Learned Helplessness

A mindset that insists on Professional Development before integrating technology is flawed.  It is not how we were born.  As children we all learnt to play with our toy, draw with our crayons, and as we learnt we made mistakes.  We did this through experimentation.  It is how we were born to acquire skills, to learn.  How is it now that so many adults are reduced to tears when confronted by an unfamiliar technology? We have learned to become helpless; most likely by playing the traditional game of ‘school’.  I expect not quite what Papert was after.

Sequence Learning

If you think that ‘Learned Helplessness’ is a pervasive culture within the teachers at your school then you have a problem.  If it is how the teachers behave, it will be unconsciously how they teach their students.  From experience the best way to change culture is by being explicit. By making obvious what is unconscious.

In my book Learning with ICT, I outline a sequence for how students should ‘learn and share’ ICT skills (see below).  By getting students (and through them teachers) to place their strategies for acquiring ICT skills on a simple continuum, they are able to see themselves in a larger context.  A context from which it becomes easier for them to take the next step in their learning, to change their culture.

Proud to be a Digital Immigrant???????????

I don’t really subscribe to the digital immigrant / digital native thing, it was an interesting observation at the time, but that is all.  Though for me ‘Learned Helplessness’ is the attitude that many of the self-described ‘digital immigrants’ adopt.  It still surprises me to this day when I hear teachers bleat out with a certain sort of pride that they are a ‘digital immigrant’.  To me they are saying that they have learned to be helpless, and they are proud of that.

It is unreasonable to expect that all teachers and school leaders will have a deep understanding of ICT and its potential.  However, if they don’t it is not something to be proud of, and it is a situation that they need to address as a matter of urgency.


Peter @Kent3ed


Sequence of strategies to learn and share ICT skills

Strategy Learning ICT skills Sharing ICT skills
Direct modelling Students acquire new ICT skills through direct modeling, usually by a teacher, but also from another student.  Students may not be able to articulate why they need the skill. Students have the capacity to demonstrate other students how to undertake an ICT task.
Asking for Assistance Students are able to identify  the ICT task they are trying to undertake and then specifically ask for assistance Students are able to verbalise instructions to others about how to undertake an ICT task.
Developmental Experimentation By drawing on previous experiences with technology students are able to browse and ‘wonder about’ parts of a software package and hardware devices with which they are unfamiliar. Through a process of experimentation or ‘having a go’ students gain new ICT skills and a level of familiarity with the technology. Students are able to work within a small group to experiment with unfamiliar software and hardware devices.
Accessing help files / online resources Students are able to purposefully use the Help associated with software programs and searching for online technical documentation and advice relating to specific hardware, Students are able to creating or add to ICT documentation.Students are able to respond clearly and succinctly to ICT related questions that have been posted online.

2 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness

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