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Learned helplessness

Third in a series of articles about my first year teaching.

Teaching in an urban school is challenging no matter what your subject, but I think the challenges are particularly profound when teaching a natural science like Earth science. The goal of a good Earth scientist is to observe a landscape and understand all the processes that helped shape it. How do you teach this to students that live in a concrete jungle? In the process of trying to figure that out, I happened across an idea that changed my perception of the problem in public school education for urban students.

Read more below to find out what I discovered.

There is a whole field of research called "geoscience education" that tries to explore how to teach Earth science better, and a few researchers are specifically exploring this question in urban settings. The generally accepted idea is that we should be emphasizing topics and activities that are "local" and "relevant." Local refers to the geography -- it means teaching about Earthquakes in the Bay Area and skipping tornadoes. Urban issues such as water quality in urban streams or landslide hazard in urban hillsides are particularly emphasized. Relevant means that the students have personal experience with the topic. As a research scientist, I started to build resources and tools that met these criteria, including my Schoolyard Geology website that grew out of my experience teaching at San Quentin prison.

When I started using these resources as a teacher, I found that they didn't work as well as I hoped. Topics like dinosaurs, planets, and stars garnered the most excitement -- topics that are neither local in scale nor relate at all to the lives and experiences of my students. They liked things that were cool, but that had little to no impact on their lives.

Why don't students like the local and relevant topics? I started to understand the answer when we studied earthquakes. I created an activity that discussed the hazard the Hayward fault poses to the BART system. Many of my students ride BART weekly and you can't get any more local than the Hayward fault, located just 5 minutes uphill from campus. I designed the activity to demonstrate to them that understanding earthquake hazard allows people to build BART safely. It was supposed to get across the idea that knowledge is power. Instead, my students commented with statements like, "I'm never riding BART again" or "What's the point in studying this stuff if we can't stop the earthquakes anyways?" I completely failed at getting across the message that we couldn't stop the earthquake, but that we could reduce its effects. Why didn't my students understand the point of this activity?

It was around this time that I started reading more in the science education literature. I ran across the idea of "learned helplessness," a concept that I remembered learning about in my psychology class in college. If a person's experiences teach them that nothing they do has any impact on the outcome, they eventually internalize a feeling of powerlessness. In psychology experiments, individuals eventually stop trying after they fail enough times. I grew up being told that I could do anything, and my experiences started reinforcing that idea until I gained self confidence. Many of my students grew up in environments where they were told they couldn't do anything. People around them struggle to get ahead and never quite make it.

A powerful example of circumstances that breed feelings of powerlessness that a student shared with me: A popular football player in our school district worked hard to get good grades and was just awarded a scholarship to University of Oregon a few years back, only to be gunned down and murdered on the street. The word around is that he was killed by a gang that was upset that he tried hard in school instead of joining their gang. According to a news article at the time, his cousin was quoted as saying, "Richmond [the city] killed my cousin. He never got a chance. He was the best person to come out of here ever." More than half of my students come from the city of Richmond, and who can blame them for feeling like it's all worthless when the best person ever to come out of their neighborhood was shot dead for trying too hard. Headlines look like this over and over again about their neighbors and peers. For contrast, the headlines about my former classmates include an actress in LA who has dated George Clooney and a gold medal winning Olympic athlete.

I mentioned in a previous posting that these issues need to be seen as obstacles and not used as excuses. As an educator in this setting, I found one of my hardest jobs was to walk the line between being a compassionate understanding person that understood the challenges my students face, and a teacher with the highest expectations for students that have unbelievable potential that didn't let them use the obstacles as excuses. This was further complicated by the fact that different students regularly turned in forged notes written by other students instead of their parents. An extreme example came from a student who brought a note explaining that he had missed class because his sister was sick and his mother had to work and couldn't take care of her -- the student was eventually expelled from school for repeatedly drinking in the mornings and coming to school drunk. However, the very next day, a student told me that she couldn't do the homework because she had to go to a funeral. She had no note. After I gave this student a stern lecture on the nature of responsibility and how she should have given me a note in advance of the absence, I called home to her mother only to find out that this excuse was legitimate, and that the funeral date had not been set until the afternoon before.

In order to unlearn this sense of helplessness, we need more than just high expectations. The expectations provide the destination, but students will never strive to attain them if their past experience teaches them that they will never reach above that bar. The solution to learned helplessness is to provide a pathway for students to gain success. And because it is a learned behavior, it will take time to unlearn.

A figure from the article You can grow your intelligence illustrating the growth of neuron connections in a baby. It's goal is to show you that you aren't born smart.

How do we show students that it's not too late, and that they can make an impact on their educational lives that will completely change the other parts of their lives? One of the things that I realized is that many of my academically underprepared students do not know what it means to learn. They have the false dichotomy of smart and dumb ingrained into their heads, so they don't realize that smart people are not born smart -- it takes work to learn. Rafe Esquith's book is titled, "There are no shortcuts" and that is the motto he uses with his class to emphasize that learning is a process that takes effort. Listening to an NPR story, I heard about another way to emphasize this point to students. Researchers went into classrooms and taught a series of short lessons on how the brain works. One focus of these lessons is an article called, You can grow your intelligence, whose main point is to emphasize that brain connections grow with learning. In other words, you aren't born smart -- you have to work at it. It's this sort of empowering idea that might jumpstart some of the young minds that currently believe that they are helpless.

While there is no clear solution to students that have no desire to learn, it's possible that some of my students suffer from a form of learned helplessness where it just seems useless to even try. Before they can succeed at learning, they need to believe that learning is both possible and has payoff for them in the end. Figuring out ways to empower students with success while keeping expectations high remains one of the single biggest challenges I faced as a classroom teacher.

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