Lifelong Learning Vs. Learned Helplessness

by Rob Smith

“The Pike School seeks to develop within its community a lifelong love of learning…A Pike education is a journey that prepares students to be independent learners… ” This may sound familiar as these two statements are major tenets of a Pike education and come directly from our mission statement.

So you say, “Fostering a lifelong love of learning; what does that look like?”  I like to reference Delors’ (1996) point of view on this, which comes from four pillars of education for our future:

  • Learning to know – mastering learning tools rather than acquisition of structured knowledge
  • Learning to do – equipping people for future work, innovation, and adaptation
  • Learning to live together – peacefully resolving conflict, discovering other people and their cultures, and fostering community
  • Learning to be – contribute to a person’s complete development; mind, body, intelligence, and sensitivity

The goal of these four pillars is to learn how to learn.  I believe Pike’s mission looks to instill creativity, initiative, and responsiveness in our students, directly emphasizing Delors’ ideas.  It allows us to encourage skill building in the areas of managing uncertainty, communicating across and within cultures, and develop the whole child.

I love this idea and relish my work in developing the whole child. Unfortunately though, I sometimes feel like I am battling a new foe – a culture of learned helplessness.  What is that, you say?  Well, it has been around since the 70’s and first discovered in animals, but most recently it has been garnering attention in the field of education.  The fact of the matter is that it directly contradicts Delors’ ideas.  There is no mastering of tools, no adaptation, or no resolution of conflict.

In the classroom it sounds like this:

“Mr. Smith, how large does the font have to be?”  “Mr. Smith, does this look okay?”  “Mr. Smith, is this right?”  “Mr. Smith, how many images should we have?”  The questions go on.  The usual response for me in these cases is, “You should already know the answer.”  The others, commonly used are, “What do you think?” or “Figure it out.”  The last one may sound slightly harsh, but I would disagree.  

I am all for self-advocating and we encourage our students to do this.  Alas, none of these questions are advocating, but merely seeking out answers.  We have conditioned our children, in a way, to ask adults and teachers for answers rather than seeking out answers for themselves. This is not necessarily bad, but shouldn’t students know how to find the information, or at least try to on their own first?  What would they do if they were alone and had an inquiry?  I can’t be there for every little inconvenience, question, or difficulty that a student comes across.  Which now brings me back to the beginning.

If we are to truly develop lifelong learning and independent learners, we need to foster resilience and grit in our students.  If a student asks a question, we must first ask ourselves, “Could they arrive to the answer on their own or with a little bit of effort?” If the answer is yes, then I need to make them struggle a little, force them to feel a little discomfort, and let them try to figure out a way to get through it on their own.  If I do not do this, I am not cultivating two main tenets of our mission.  

JAIMEEK_PIKESCHOOL314When I give the answer, “Figure it out,” my students do just that and come back to me quickly to let me know.  Those smiles and looks of pure accomplishment are what keep me going. There is always an amazing conversation and process when a student is proud, and I can acknowledge their success, and ask them where and how they came to the answer.  My favorite part is that they don’t realize I have taught them something – how to learn.  This is more important than the atomic mass of Helium, the layers of the atmosphere, or how to classify living things.  

At Pike, we equip students with the tools to succeed, adapt, and innovate.  This occurs in the daily interactions, opportunities presented, and on an ongoing basis in our classes, clubs, advisory, and the sports fields.

My role is to teach and coach students how to answer their own questions and how to navigate the bumps in the road.  But this is not something that we do to our students; rather it is something we do with them.  It is a constant dialogue that happens each and every day in a variety of contexts.  And it is the best way to combat the notion of learned helplessness while instilling lifelong learning practices in our amazing students.

Delors, J. (1996) Learning: The treasure within Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, UNESCO

The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership.


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3 Comments on “Lifelong Learning Vs. Learned Helplessness
  1. Thank you for so eloquently explaining the work we do every day to help students develop the tools and skills they need to be resilient life-long learners!

  2. Well done, Rob. Thank you for challenging the students to develop learning skills as well as instilling in them the confidence to solve problems.

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