Changing the Learned Helplessness of Educators

This post is the third in a series for the #IMMOOC book study on Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation. This week the focus is on changing traditions that don’t work anymore.

Professional development in many schools, including Milaca, traditionally have taken the form of one-and-done, sit-and-get workshops. We have brought in many “experts” who came to share their ideas about what should be done in the classroom. In the past 19 years, very few of these have stuck.

One of the first I remember was on standards assessments for the Minnesota Profiles of Learning. We were trained for three hours about what represented a 4, 3, 2, or 1. Then we broke for lunch and in the afternoon met with department members so we could practice assessing using the new scale. These assessments were never discussed again after this day and the Profiles were scrapped after my first year of teaching.


Another training was called CARS, which stood for Content Area Reading Strategies. Honestly the name is all I remember from that training. The biggest problem was that it was a three hour guilt-trip about how it is not just English Language Arts teachers that are responsible for teaching and developing readers. It’s too bad, because improving reading strategies in the classes I teach is now something I would like to improve on, and I think that workshop could have helped.

The tradition of the one-and-done, sit-and-get, and one-size-fits-all professional development for teachers has come and gone and needs to be limited or eliminated from education. This has a direct impact on the learning experiences we give our students because if teachers are expected to learn in that style, they will expect the same to work for their students (see my post Teachers Create What They Experience).

Despite this, there are many teachers, some of whom I work with, that want the path of least resistance; they want the easy road; they want to be left alone; they want to return to their rooms to grade papers, prep a new unit, or create elaborate bulletin boards. While each of these have their place in a teacher’s workday, they can also get in the way of providing the teachers with their own authentic learning opportunities.

The worst part of the traditional professional development is that it creates a culture for educators of “learned helplessness.” According to Katie Martin in her book Learner Centered Innovation, “Too many kids put in little effort and just wait to be guided, which is also known as “learned helplessness” (p. 135). Replace the word “kids” with “learners” and you could just as easily be referring to teachers. Without buying in to the goals of the training, teachers withdraw. Their minds wander. They begin thinking about all those other things they could be doing.

“If we want to close the gap between how we say we want learning to look in schools and how it actually looks, we must change how we design learning experiences for students and educators” (#LCInnovation, p. 137). Allowing for teachers to engage in their own personal learning experiences to further develop their strengths, or find other areas in which to grow, will provide opportunities for teachers to #ChaseCuriosity. Teachers will then encourage personal learning for their students, which will allow them to #ChaseCuriosity also.

Applying Katie’s 8 Questions to Create Personal Learning Experiences (#LCInnovation, p. 147-149) to the learning of teachers can help us create innovative, new Professional Development. We need to start by recognizing that each teacher is an individual, with individual needs. Then we need to allow teachers to develop and own their own professional learning goals. Providing necessary support to teachers is essential. This can be done by participating in Professional Learning Communities, working with an Instructional Coach, or seeking out other resources they may need. Finally, making learning visible is essential in this type of professional development. If we don’t share what we learn with others, do we really learn anything?

Not all of the responsibility for changing professional development lies in the hands of teachers. Our schools and administrators have perpetuated the traditional model because it serves some of the needs they have to make sure all teachers get the same messages. In this way, they encourage the “learned helplessness” of teachers. This helps to explain Katie’s message that, “the reason we don’t see more schools devoted to meeting the unique needs of each learner is that we are still operating in systems where standardization is deeply ingrained in our procedures and policies” (#LCInnovation, p. 149). Changing the culture of a school is no simple thing, but there are other ways to spread a consistent message, while at the same time allow for individual personal opportunities. Flipping a staff meeting is one that comes to mind.

Jennifer Gonzalez, in her Cult of Pedagogy blog post called, OMG Becky. PD is Getting So Much Better!!, lists suggestions for schools to try if they wish to change the traditional model of professional development. I would add to this one other suggestion, which we are currently using in Milaca, the FlexPD model. Flex PD is an opportunity for teachers to personalize their professional development. Teachers are given 15 hours, two contracted days, to engage in growth opportunities in areas of interest and need. If interested, I describe this in detail in another post called The FlexPD Project.

I think all of these suggestions would help alleviate the “Learned Helplessness” of teachers and lead to empowering opportunities for professional growth where Learning Matters Most.