Alien spacecraft over a panicking city

Learned helplessness: a behavior often seen when an individual believes they have no control over the outcome of a situation, regardless of the reality of their perceived control. “The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom. Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences.” (“Learned helplessness” – Wikipedia) “What’s the point of trying?” is often thought or spoken.

ISTE Coaching Standard 3 [Digital age learning environments] calls on “technology coaches [to] create and support effective digital age learning environments to maximize the learning of all students.” Much easier said than done, to be sure. Anyone who has spent even a moment teaching knows the last phrase is the kicker: all students. A few students? Most could do that with little trouble. Most students? Tougher, but still doable with a little hard work and luck. But all students? Now throw technology into the mix and the odds of success begin to seem less likely than predicting the winning PowerBall numbers… twice. Now add in a mindset of learned helplessness, wherein students predict failure and don’t even try. What are those odds of success now? Without a balanced and mindful approach, slim to none.

Let’s take a look at the photo from the beginning of this post. We’re looking at a city square and an alien craft is hovering overhead. How would you react in a similar situation? Looking at the image metaphorically, our teaching spaces are the city square: they’re filled with learners of all shapes, sizes, interests, ages, experiences, backgrounds. The alien craft hovering overhead is the technology or project we’re bringing into our teaching space. How will we respond? How will our students or peers respond? Much depends on our approach. There are clues in the image as to the kind of responses we may likely see in our students and colleagues:

boy running away in fearReaction #1: Run Away!!!

“This is not happening. Not now, not ever. I refuse to take part in this. I’ve seen this movie. I see what’s going down, and I have no interest in participating. I’m outta here!” This is someone who’s been there, done that. There would seem to be no reasoning with them. They know what they need to do, and that’s to remove themselves from the current reality. They’re a survivor, but they’re taking their skills with them when they opt out of the situation at hand. This is a learned helplessness response. Good luck teaching them when they’ve already fled.

man looking over his shoulder in fear

Reaction #2: Frozen in Fear

“What is going on? I am powerless. Should I leave? What is this? I should go. No, I’m not going to run away because what good would it do?” This poor guy is dropping a handful of papers that up until this moment seemed very important to him. His productivity has ground to a halt as he stands motionless, stuck between tasks. Many staff or students may feel this way when confronting a difficult task or a new technology. Fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. Doing nothing is not the answer, though it is also often a learned helplessness response. Teaching someone with such a frozen by fear of failure is not an easy task.

by pointing up into the sky

Reaction #3: Childlike Wonder

“Hey! Look at that cool thing up there!” This child shows no fear, pointing in delight at the unknown events happening above him. The adult next to him seems to be ready to grab hold of the oblivious kid’s hand. The child doesn’t know what the adult knows, nor does the child realize what he doesn’t know. A giant alien spacecraft is overhead… it’s okay (and probably wise) to feel a little fear or trepidation. The absence of fear can result in blindly proceeding into unsafe situations. “There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” Aeschylus Childlike wonder is a beautiful thing, but a sense of wonder does not mean you have to be dependent and oblivious.

couple standing together looking into sky

Reaction #4: Athletic stance

“Let’s do this.” They’re in this together. Based on their physical reactions there looks to be fear involved. They could easily have begun running away by now, but their stance shows they’re ready to adapt and adjust and respond to the situation. (I like to think this is how I would react, though to be honest, I would probably be taking the car from the frozen guy and racing out of town. I’d at least offer him a ride, if he was quick about it.)

Of these four responses, the balanced approach in #4 is how I would hope to react and how I would want my students and staff to react, whether it be in emergency situations like an inevitable alien attack or during a normal run-of-the-mill classroom activity. There’s no panic, no giving up, a willingness to use the skills they have without truly knowing the obstacles or outcome, a decision to stand together to take on the challenges at hand. So how do we get there in the face of learned helplessness in those around us? Let’s take a look at two of the more popular trends from the last couple of years: growth mind-set and grit.

Growth Mind-set

Having a growth mind-set vs. a fixed mind-set is one topic thrown around a lot as a panacea for reaching even the most jaded learners. The terms were coined by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. in her work at Stanford University. In summary, those with a fixed mind-set see intelligence as largely a predetermined and static commodity, while those with a growth mind-set believe that intelligence can be developed. Focusing on a growth mind-set is said to help students reach their true potential as they feel more empowered and committed. The idea is presented elegantly in this Nigel Holmes infographic:

growth vs. fixed mindset chart

You’ve probably seen ‘Pinterest’y bulletin boards like this one:

change your words, change your mindset

But a beautiful bulletin board like this can do truly more harm than good. Posting these messages on the wall will seldom change a child’s heart. What kid will walk by this in the hallway, pause, and think to himself: “By golly, I just need to change my words. Instead of ‘I can’t read’, I’m going to train my brain in reading. Why didn’t I think of this sooner? Thanks, bulletin board from Pinterest.” (The irony of a message about not being able to read being printed and posted on a bulletin board is not to be missed.)

To clarify my “more harm than good” assessment, a project like the mind-set bulletin board can give a false sense of accomplishment. I imagine the staff meeting conversation: “Are we focused on growth mindsets around here?” “Well, we’ve got that amazing bulletin board by the lunch room.” “Great, keep it up! Now, let’s talk about the latest state testing results.” Nothing was accomplished more than artistically covering a hallway wall with uplifting messages. The bulletin board message itself is a great idea. We should absolutely work towards helping those around us reach their true potential. But is that bulletin board in your hallway reflective of the work being done in your school? Truly focusing on developing a growth mind-set requires a massive mindshift from many students, staff, and parents alike. A bulletin board alone doesn’t cut it. Dweck herself admits that shifting thinking like this cannot be oversimplified: “Changing mind-sets is not like surgery,” [Dweck] says. “You can’t simply remove the fixed mind-set and replace it with the growth mind-set.” (Krakovsky, 2007) Recently Dweck revisited her work and how it’s been applied in the educational world. “In many quarters, a growth mind-set had become the right thing to have, the right way to think. It was as though educators were faced with a choice: Are you an enlightened person who fosters students’ well-being? Or are you an unenlightened person, with a fixed mindset, who undermines them? So, of course, many claimed the growth-mindset identity. But the path to a growth mind-set is a journey, not a proclamation.” (Dweck, 2015)


Fostering a culture of grit is another popular movement in education and business alike. “Grit”, coined by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, is the idea that an individual exhibits “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.” (Duckworth, 2007)  This infographic by Sylvia Duckworth (no relation) summarizes the idea that success is achieved through an often messy combination of failure, sacrifice, hard work, and dedication:

iceberg illusion infographic

So What Now?

Back to “digital age learning environments” for all learners and thinking back to the impending alien attack, how do we prepare for all of varied responses? 

Edutopia has some great resources on the topics and here are just a few:

5 Steps to Foster Grit in the Classroom by Andrew Miller
Avoiding “Learned Helplessness” by Andrew Miller
Developing a Growth Mindset in Teachers and Staff by Keith Heggart
True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It by Vicki Davis

Are we training our students and staff how to properly respond when faced with unexpected obstacles? Should we focus on grit or on growth mind-set? There really isn’t a single approach that will snuff out learned helplessness. A multi-pronged approach is needed. What works for one learner or colleague may totally fail with another. Luckily there are some common threads throughout these and other educational theories, and I’ll highlight three: (1) Trust, (2) Communication, and (3) Patience.


When there is a culture of trust, people are willing to try and even to fail. Allowing for failure is an underutilized and powerful teaching tool. Creating trust means being vulnerable. When the learner knows they’re not alone, great things can happen. When there is trust, there is honesty.


Open communication is based on honesty and self-awareness. When you need help, be honest about those needs. When sacrifice is needed, be honest about that, too. Ongoing reflection and revision will help learners to find their voice. Allowing for feedback throughout the process will allow for growth in your teaching as well. Honest feedback is more powerful than feel-good feedback. End-of-unit feedback can help you spot holes in instruction or in learning. Talk about grit and growth mind-set, and about how learning is hard work. Find others in the community who are willing to visit and share their experiences (great opportunity for a Skype/Hangout visit), to show that learning is not just a school-thing.


These types of culture change and mind shifts take time and lots of it. Like Dweck said, this isn’t an operation. It’s often said that teaching is an art. Well, art is messy. “Rules” in art are made to be broken. Embracing differences in the artists and their work is what makes art so powerful and cross-cultural. Creativity is an innate human ability, and reminding learners of that ability will take effort, and effort takes time.

So there you have it. Take a little growth mind-set, mix it with trust, communication, and patience, and then grind it up with a little grit…  And you, too, will be ready for an alien invasion. And for teaching how to write a persuasive essay. And for teaching kids how to read. And for helping a colleague overcome their fear of technology. But mostly, keep an eye out for those aliens.


Barr, R. D., & Gibson, E. L. (2015). Sowing seeds of hope. Educational Leadership, 72(9), 22-27.

Davis, V. (2015, July 28). True grit: The best measure of success and how to teach it | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Desautels, L. (2014, June 11). Emotions are contagious | Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). “Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (6), p. 1087. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the ‘growth mind-set’ – Education Week. Retrieved from

Gerstein, J. (2014, August 29). The educator with a growth mindset: A professional development workshop | User Generated Education [Web log post]. Retrieved from

The Hechinger Report. (2016, April 18). Grit under attack in education circles | US News. Retrieved from

Heggart, K. (2015, February 3). Developing a growth mindset in teachers and staff | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Hicks, K. (2015, March 17). Why creativity in the classroom matters more than ever | Edudemic. Retrieved from

International Society for Technology in Education. (n.d.). ISTE standards for coaches. Retrieved from

Krakovsky, M. (2007, March/April). The effort effect | Stanford Magazine. Retrieved from

Maats, H., & O’Brien, K. (2014, March 20). Teaching students to embrace mistakes | Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Miller, A. (2014, January 7). 5 steps to foster grit in the classroom | Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Miller, A. (2015, May 11). Avoiding “learned helplessness” | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Tough, P. (2016, June). How to teach students grit – The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Wood, C. J. (1991). Are Students and School Personnel Learning to be Helpless-Oriented or Resourceful-Oriented? Part 1: Focus on Students. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 2(1), 15-48. doi:10.1207/s1532768xjepc0201_2

Wood, C. J. (1992). Are Students and School Personnel Taught to Be Helpless-Oriented or Resourceful-Oriented? Part 2: Focus on School Personnel. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3(4), 317-355. doi:10.1207/s1532768xjepc0304_3


“Childhood’s End” concept art by Neal Adams

“Two Mindsets” by Nigel Holmes

“Growth Mindset bulletin board” by RoomMomSpot

“The Iceberg Illusion” by Sylvia Duckworth