How education is perpetuating learned helplessness

Legend has it that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. However, if you put a frog into cold water and gradually increase the heat then it will boil alive without knowing it. For those out there who need everything to be evidence informed I must confess that I don’t have any research to hand which will back up my claim, I myself am happy to accept this analogy though.

I first came across this way of thinking when I worked in the NHS. I was part of a team of people who were tasked to roll out a national project and we were told to treat staff like the frogs, roll out the project in such a way that they didn’t notice the change. Some changes in the NHS have been good ones, as have some in education. However a number of initiatives brought in to support our public services seemed like a good idea at the time but have created a learned helplessness within our professions.

Recently, I attended a session delivered by Daisy Christodoulou recently on comparative judgement and its use in education. What struck me most was the spectrum of responses to this way of assessment. When I began to consider the demographic of the room I realised that the majority of people there had experienced only National Curriculum levels and GCSE grade descriptors, both as teachers and students themselves. When asked to compare one piece of work against another, teachers looked for the safety of grade descriptors and rubrics. Comparative judgement is not about categories or pigeon holes, it’s simply about professional understanding and the effective application of subject expertise. Once teachers set about completing the exercise Daisy had set it within a couple of minutes they were feeling more comfortable with their judgements. There was a sense of empowerment in the room, it was liberating.

I’ve found that the initial anxiety of the teachers at the beginning of Daisy’s session is much more indicative of the bigger picture for assessment across education, often without the reassuring atmosphere that professional development events like No More Marking deliver. Teachers can feel very isolated and in a situation where they are consciously incompetent. Worse still, there are teachers and schools who are unconsciously incompetent because they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t feel confident assessing students’ learning and communication of their subject without a tick-box or a data tracking grid. Why? Simply because we are in a situation where we don’t know any different. The National Curriculum was introduced following the Education Reform act in 1988 and students were first formally assessed on its content in 1991. Since this time there has been a descriptor or level apportioned to everything teachers do. Schools like ours rejoiced at the removal of levels because we felt that we were being trusted to assess our students using our professional judgement and that we were empowering our teachers as experts. However, this wasn’t the case for everyone. Over the last few years we’ve seen levels replaced by descriptors or words which again have no tangible meaning to them and give no insight into what a student knows or doesn’t know. Assessment is just one of many aspects of education where we have developed a learned helplessness, something which needs addressing with an intelligent and stealthy approach.

How can we redress the balance?

The reality is that there is no silver bullet in education. In fact, chasing silver bullets and ticking boxes are precisely the catalyst for long term issues – favouring short term rewards over the creation of a sustainable culture of excellence is a recipe for disaster. I’ve a few ideas about what senior leadership teams should do to prevent learned helplessness in their schools, starting with the leadership team themselves:

Be brave and discerning

When head teachers are asked by governing bodies, LAs or trust boards to set targets for the school there is an enormous amount of pressure to set unrealistic and unachievable markers, which in turn cascades onto staff – turning the focus away from teaching. The best head teachers will be brave and only agree to targets which are reasonable and promote a sustainable improvement. On a similar point, there is a tendency from some head teachers to move from one initiative to the next. If the environment is one of constant change, teachers can’t keep up, practices never get embedded and professionals can’t take responsibility for their own teaching.

Create a culture of trust and expectation

If SLT have to look to a spreadsheet when asked how their school, students or teachers are doing then monitoring is focusing on the wrong things – numbers not people. Data and monitoring are important but creating a climate where a member of the leadership team at the classroom door is an integral part of supporting the teachers as well as knowing the school and its students should be what teams are striving for. Expectations on students and staff should be clear and regularly communicated through a variety of methods. High standards should be set and if an individual is failing to make those expectations talk to them on a one-to-one. There’s nothing worse than the team telling off when it’s just one or two people who are doing something wrong unwittingly. After all, no one wants to do a bad job so a private conversation explaining expectations is much more effective in creating mutual respect and a culture of collective responsibility

Treat teachers as professionals

The importance of acknowledging teachers’ ability to apply their professional knowledge is vital for any SLT. When individual responsibility is taken away by enforcing systemic procedures and practices that don’t add value the damage done can be catastrophic. Often these are to make monitoring and box ticking easier. This approach diminishes professional curiousity and impacts on a teacher’s desire to keep learning about their passions. Furthermore, it develops a sense of relinquishing personal responsibility. Leadership teams need to lead, set out expectations, accept that there are many ways to meet those expectations and facilitate teachers in their efforts to achieve them.

Professional development that’s fit for purpose and bespoke

This ties in with my previous point. If you ask a teacher what they need to develop the majority will be able to tell you. The minority that don’t know would benefit from a developmental conversation. Trying to apply a one size fits all attitude to CPD can be detrimental to the development of more (and less) experienced staff, as can prioritising generic professional learning at the cost of subject specific enhancement. Having an annual INSET session on generic questioning skills is useless if a teacher doesn’t hold the domain specific knowledge to know which questions to ask. Leadership teams should also encourage further scholarship in their staff as well as this perpetuates the love of learning whilst keeping teachers at the top of their intellectual game so to speak.

Leaders need to be the hardest workers in the school

This is not about showboating or creating an environment where you can’t leave until the head teacher does. Equally it’s not about those who pay lip service to a work life balance. As senior leaders it is our job to facilitate teaching and learning at its very best. We must work hard quietly behind the scenes to enable that to happen. To make it easier for teachers takes a significant amount of effort from us. Encouraging departments to mark in the most effective way for them or record the data that gives the most useful insight to their students’ learning and needs will produce a spectrum of information, it is the role of SLT to make sense of it whilst quality assuring that what’s happening in classes. In my experience, a procedure put in place to make monitoring easier very rarely improves the quality of first wave teaching.

Will we ever achieve perfection?

The reality is that we are never going to get to a perfect situation where students and teachers alike all assume the level of personal responsibility for their own learning and practice. Why? Simply because humans are beautifully flawed, we’re all different and we all have different perceptions of excellence and expectation. Good leadership teams will recognise this and work hard to communicate their expectations to the people within their communities. They will focus on empowering staff and students, recognising potential and supporting the efforts of individuals to improve. Brave leaders will have conversations and invest time working with adults and students who are struggling to enhance their own personal development rather than giving out blanket messages and INSET that are wasted on the many. Above all, they are discerning in what they choose to ask teachers to do – considering whether the impact is worth the effort of their staff. All of this takes huge effort in the first instance and a relentless commitment to continuous refinement of practices – tweaking not transforming. The question is this, are we as leaders willing to put in the effort needed or are we going to take the easy option of line of least resistance then complain about how incompetent everyone else is?
Carl Jung said,

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

I think he had a point.

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