Virtual Education: An End to Learned Helplessness?

During my first few years of elementary school, I struggled with reading. I don’t really remember how I learned how to read, but I know that it was difficult for me in first and second grade. Part of that might have been because my home life was in chaos with my parents’ divorce and the fact that I attended three different schools as a second-grader. I don’t know exactly what changed other than an encouraging teacher in third grade, Mrs. Saremi.

My mom tells the story that when I was a baby, the pediatrician told my parents, “Because of the problems she will have with her vision, she might have a difficult time in school.” My parents asked people in our church family for prayer, and other than the first few years of elementary school, I never really struggled in school. Of course, part of that might be because I learned to develop grit – the ability to persevere despite obstacles in life. I became the type of person who wanted to prove people wrong. I thought to myself, “Ok, doc. You think I will struggle in school? Let me prove you wrong.”

This school year is a difficult year for educators, students, and families because of obvious reasons. Educators are trying to figure out how to teach virtually, blended, and a variety of both. We are all brand new teachers, learning new technologies, making more phone calls and sending more emails than ever before, and posting announcements that give the same information over and over again.

Students are learning a new way of learning. They are not used to learning from home with all of the distractions that their home life might bring to their education. And to be honest, some of them are drowning in assignments only four weeks into this new school year because they haven’t learned the power of time management. Yet.

Parents are learning how to best support their children. They are talking to teachers more often than in the past, seeking ways to understand what each teacher wants from their child. And multiply that by the number of children they have at home, learning in this new environment.

There is a psychological theory called learned helplessness that many of us develop when we face trauma. This may cause us to give up in certain situations even if we have the ability to overcome some type of obstacle. Sometimes students learn this behavior if they have difficulty with certain aspects of their education. And unfortunately, some educators and parents have enabled children by providing them with support that they may not always need. The worst example that I saw of this behavior was a tenth grader who would not do his work in my class one day because he did not have a pen or pencil to complete his work. Instead of asking for a pen or pencil or getting up to get one, he waited until an adult in the classroom brought him a pencil. This is learned helplessness in the classroom.

Currently, learned helplessness is a luxury that none of us can afford. Because of the limited access that students have to educators, some students are in need of learning grit. Along with some educators and some parents, they need to unlearn learned helplessness. They need to seek out the resources they have at their disposal. They need to become advocates for their education and their futures. Developing tenacity and perseverance are necessary in overcoming some of the obstacles that we are faced with in life. And right now, we need to be tenacious. We need to persevere. We need to persist in this battle against apathy, depression, anger, frustration, loneliness, and ignorance.

I learned at eight years old that reading made me come alive. It gave me an escape. It gave me hope. It gave me insight. It gave me compassion. It challenged me. It helped me to develop grit.

In elementary school, we had competitions for silent reading throughout the year. We could earn prizes for meeting certain goals in our reading, and I wanted to be the best. I decided that I wanted to read Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, a book that was 384 pages. That’s a lot of pages for an eight year old, but I put my mind to it. I didn’t allow my struggle with reading, my sometimes messy home life, or my own insecurity to stop me from reaching my goal. And when I finished the book, I was so proud of myself for reaching the end. It didn’t matter what the prize was for reading the most pages. In fact, I don’t even remember if I won a prize. The prize for me was reading a book of almost 400 pages at eight years old.

Some people might think that I have learned the power of positivity to overcome obstacles in life. That’s not true. I don’t subscribe to unnecessary positivity because I have found that sometimes positivity becomes toxic if it’s not grounded in reality. I am a realist. I struggle in life. I cry. I yell. I curse. I have moments when life feels fragile, like tissue paper. But I move forward because at a young age, I learned grit.

Grit acknowledges that life is hard, but grit does not allow for learned helplessness. And right now, all of us need some grit. We need to put aside whatever excuses we have. We need to seek the resources that we need to move forward. That doesn’t mean this will be easy. It will be difficult. But it will be worth it in the end.

Published by bagmac77

I am a high school English teacher, wife, and mother. I love writing about the ways in which faith intersects our modern world.

One thought on “Virtual Education: An End to Learned Helplessness?

  1. For myself, I am amazed at the levels of propaganda and rhetoric in the world today, but I suppose, it was there while we were growing up, and we’ve been able to see that history. However, one thing was good while growing up. While we went to school, we were held responsible for learning, so if we didn’t, we were held back a grade until we did learn. That put the onus of responsibility on our own shoulders, but also, caused us more to think for ourselves. So we didn’t look to others for our help, but went out, tried this and that, ran the neighborhoods, created bicycles out of dumpster parts, mowed neighbors lawns for money, got part time jobs on our own, and more. What we learned from our youth on forwards was, if we wanted to learn, we would learn. Never have I needed a computer or any electronics to learn. If I want to learn how to train a dog, I get a dog and figure it out, then if I see others with well behaved dogs, I ask them, face to face. My friend and I learned how to golf by watching others and mimicking their swings, and we were able to par on a couple of courses. If the youth really want to learn, they have all the resources necessary: them. What do they want to learn, then go for it.


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