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First Thoughts on Learned Helplessness

Explore: You're Not Alone

Since reading Mark Britz post It’s All Training Until It Isn’t and related post Learned (Learning) Helplessness many thoughts have been stirring in my head.

Before I lost the ideas these posts and the term “learned helplessness” stirred in my head, I wanted to write down a story I was reminded of. It’s a story of how unknown to myself was introduced to this term and the prevalence it holds in society.

Before I was part of the Learning & Development world, I was a computer technician in an elementary school. I worked with teachers and sometimes students on how to best use technology in the classroom and of course I maintained it.

I never had any sort of official training in the detailed workings of computers or how to troubleshoot them, I just learned by doing. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d search for an answer! I never thought about this, or my inquisitive nature that I used to troubleshoot every issue imaginable.

One day I was helping a teacher create a school newsletter back in the day of Microsoft Publisher (does it still exist)? She was having trouble figuring out how to align a certain group of text on the screen.

Rather than exploring, trying, then searching, teachers defaulted to asking me for help. This created great job security for me, but I do believe there’s a better way.

Not knowing much about Publisher, I played around a bit and figured out a solution. It didn’t take a search nor did it take a deep level of knowledge of the software. The only thing I used to solve the problem was good ol’ fashioned curiosity.

The teacher was so amazed how I could play around with the software and figure out a solution. I thought nothing of this at the time, but I’ve thought of this story as a reminder of how unwilling people are to take part in trial and error.

Explore: You're Not Alone

Relationship to Learned Helplessness

I think the connection is obvious to the term learned helplessness, but in case it’s not, I’ll explore it a bit further.

This teacher in her many years of schooling and training had lost the ability for exploration. This ties in with learned helplessness, she was to the point where she had forgotten how to learn or was unwilling to try on her own.

While it made me feel needed and I was more than happy to help, I thought there must be a better way. This is what led me to seek other career paths even if it was subconscious. A large part of my job was comprised of something anybody could have done, it’s just that people had forgotten how to try to do it themselves.

More to Come

This is only the beginning of my thoughts on this topic, and I’m glad that I have a name to put to it now. I have a lot of research to do on the topic and I look forward to every bit of it. Social learning and learning how to learn are important factors in combatting learned helplessness.

It’s not something that will be solved in a few bullet points. It’s deeply engrained in our culture of formal learning and doing. That is part of what I’m hoping to uncover in future posts. It’s part of what I love about L&D, there’s always something to learn, new and old but relevant still.

Do you have any stories or experiences that you could tell about seeing learned helplessness in the workplace or school?

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