Monday, May 06, 2013

How can the mind of student in today's school set him/her for failure?

Mind can set up Learnt helplessness. And when learnt helpless sets in, it is very difficult to help a student to do anything positive in life. To know more about what is Inside journey, read this blog.

Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself. How does this helplessness set in?

In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Finally, even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.**

I have also seen this learned helplessness in many students with regards to studies. How does it set in? Let me present you a hypothetical case of a student, called Savita, that slowly drove her to the state of learnt helplessness through her own mind that tries to make sense.

Scenario 1: Savita, a student, has been faring poorly in physics. She is sitting in the class trying to understand a new chapter of "light' of physics. She has queries. She asks questions to the teacher. Teacher, knowing that Savita is not good in physics, tells her "Please understand the full chapter before you ask a question'. At the end of the class, Savita rushes to ask the difficulty to the teacher. Teacher rebuffs her by saying ' Do i have time only to answer your queries in class?' 

How does Mind of Savita make sense of this situation?: She is confused because her friend is able to understand physics easily. She does not know the concept of logical skill? So she is not able to figure out that her logical skill may not be good in understanding subjects like physics. When someone tells her that she should 'Try harder", she is even more confused. Because she does not 'what else she should must do'. She is paralysed into inaction.

Scenario  2: Savita's father is an Engineer. Seeing her marks, her father wants to motivate her. He tells her his story of school struggle. He tells her how he was also poor in physics in VIIth class, and how he managed to work harder and harder until he understood physics well.

But while telling this story, her father misses the important ingredients of his story. For instance, he forgets to tell her that his class teacher was living in the neighborhood and therefore was more approachable. And he does not tell her that in those days, teachers were far more helpful, because they had more time, and also perhaps, more commitment . What is the impact of this story?

How does mind of Savita make sense of this situation:  Without knowing the full background of the story of her father, what does Savita conclude? She makes another big conclusion "I am unable to summon the willpower to work hard and concentrate". Now this sense-making is more serious, because she has labelled herself as 'something is wrong with me'  

Scenario 3: An experimental science fest is announced in the school. Savita is told to take part in the experimental science fest because her friend is also taking part. Knowing her poor marks in science, Savita does not want to take part in the experimental science fest. She tells her parents and teachers that she does not want to participate. This announcement of Savita now becomes the ultimate proof that she is not trying harder. Her teachers, parents and others have 'evidence' to conclude that she is not really trying harder, that she does not have willpower, that she is not capable enough. All negative vibes are given to her which downs her further. 

How does Mind of Savita pushes her in Learned Helplessness? After several such scenarios, occurring daily in different permutations and combinations, Savita's mind has concluded that she is not 'good enough' to survive in this 'world'. She gives up. Learnt helplessness sets in. And when it sets in, even if someone wants to help her, Savita refuses to use the help to get out of her mess. As her mind has already concluded ( like the animal in the experiment) that she is beyond any help, she refuses to be helped. In a way, Savita has used her own mind to set herself for failure. It takes a major miracle to turn round the situation ! ( Many successful achievers, whom i have interviewed, share such miracle event especially if they have fared poor academically)


In today's school systems, you will find many more Savitas, because schools do not help individual students to find their abilities. You cannot blame any teacher or parents for their helpless state. But unwittingly, the child's mind through sense-making sets him up for learned helplessness. And once, this sets in, even helping a student is not useful for the student, because the student refuses to be helped. 

We plan to prevent the students getting in this state of learned helpless by taking two actions. First,  we  plan to profile every student's abilities and background.  But profiling is just a means to an end. It will help every student develop a Continouous Learning Plan (CLP).  

With this CLP, the second action of assisting student can happen. With this CLP, students can explore their full range of abilities, grow some of them to a reasonable depth by utilising help from schools, teachers, friends and parents. If they have a non-mainstream ability like drawing or music, they still can motivate themselves by finding the 'domains' their ability can be used, because they will not be domain-blind. More importantly CLP, either with the help of mentor or coach,  enables a child to 'see' the invisible process of sense-making of Inside Mind and therefore 'correct' it or re-direct it in an intended direction.

** Martin Seligman and Steve Maier's experiments

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