How to turn the tables on helpless students!

Picture the scene…you are explaining the project you have mapped out for your students.  You have barely begun your presentation when hands fly into the air.  “How long does it have to be?”,  “How many sources do I need?”, “What if I can’t think of anything? “, “Do we have to write it out or can we type it?”  “What kind of paper do I use?” “How do I start?”  Before you find yourself spoon-feeding your students the ideas for the project and after you take a deep breath so you don’t explode…sit down and read the article I just found.

Catlin Tucker posted an article on her website,, that grabbed my attention.  The title…?  “Combatting a Culture of Learned Helplessness”!!  So before you present your next project, read this article and arm yourself  in order help your students defeat their learned helplessness!!

Read it and let me know what you think!

Combatting[sic] a Culture of Learned Helplessness

I led a training last week on blended learning and asked teachers to brainstorm the biggest challenges they face in the classroom. One answer resonated with me. “Learned helplessness.” On my drive home, I kept mentally returning to this phrase.

Then in my own classroom last week, my students were beginning a research project that would culminate in student presentations. We’ve done this type of task before, yet I was bombarded with questions: “Tucker, what should we title this?” “Tucker, how big should the font be?” “Tucker, how do we add an image to the background of our slide?”

I have a stock response I use in this situation, “Figure it out.” That may strike some teacher as harsh, but I disagree. Our students are conditioned from a young age to ask a teacher for help the minute something doesn’t go right or the moment they have a question. Where is the curiosity? Why don’t they want to figure it out themselves?

I cannot climb into my students backpacks and go home with them to field every inquiry they have, so why would I do it in the classroom? Students have to learn how to answer their own questions. More and more, I have come to feel that my main responsibility as an educator is not to teach students about literature, writing, vocabulary or grammar. My job is to teach them how to learn. If they know how to continue learning long after they leave my class, I have given them a gift that will make college, career paths, and life easier.

When students have questions, I ask them:

  1. Did you ask anyone else?
  2. Did you Google it?
  3. Have you searched YouTube for a tutorial?

Most students haven’t even bothered to Google a question before they ask me. This is shocking. Google is where I would go first if I had a question I could not answer. If my search results didn’t shed light on my question or problem, I’d turn to YouTube and watch video explanations or tutorials.

Teachers who want to cultivate curious life-long learners should stop and think before they answer student questions. Ask yourself, “Is this a question they could figure out for themselves?” If the answer is “Yes,” then let them struggle a little. The reward of answering their own questions is much more gratifying and help us to combat this culture of learned helplessness.

So what do you think?  Leave me a comment!  




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.