Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

December 19, 2011

Replacing Head Light Bulbs and Learned Helplessness

A few nights ago my husband discovered that one of the headlights on my car was out – I was certain he said it was the passenger side. Since I would have the car the following day, I knew I would need to take care of it and vowed to look at it in the light of day. I was thrilled the next morning to see that it was super simple to pop the light assembly and bulb out of the passenger side, and bulb in hand, I drove to the auto parts store. I popped in the bulb, turned on the ignition and discovered, to my great dismay, that although the bulb I had just installed worked perfectly, the driver’s side light was out. Either, by bizarre coincidence another bulb had blown 24 hours later, or I had heard my husband wrong. A quick phone call confirmed that he had told me it was the driver’s side. I re-opened the hood and was devastated – the light assembly on the driver’s side was blocked by the battery, the radiator, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t recognize. It was tempting to give up.

The week prior, I had shared an amazing you-tube video with my graduate class in Educational Psychology. It showed a college professor inducing learned helplessness in her students in a manner of minutes. She gave the class a page with three words to unscramble, one at a time. She stressed that the task was not difficult. She asked students to raise their hands as they completed the first word. All the students on the right side of the class raised their hand almost immediately. They had been asked to unscramble the word T-A-B and make another word. The students on the left side of the room looked puzzled. “Never mind”, the professor instructed, “let’s just move on to word number two”. Once again, hands on the right were quickly raised as they formed L-E-M-O-N from the word M-E-L-O-N. The students on the left seemed to become more distressed. The instructor told all the students to move on to the third and final word – and once again the students on the right quickly succeeded. While all the students had the same third word – C-I-N-E-R-A-M-A – which is easily reassembled into AMERICAN, the students on the right side of the classroom approached it after two successes, whereas the students on the left had been given two impossible words first. The students on the right once again quickly raised their hands, while those on the left, who had learned that they were helpless struggled with their first do-able word.

I am certain that if I had opened my hood assuming the difficult driver’s side light was what needed to be changed, I would have taken one look and driven to the service station. But having done one successfully I felt empowered to try, even taking some parts out to have access to the ring that holds the light bulb in place. I was determined to get the old bulb out and the new one in, even though it required some contortions and struggles. Happily, this daughter of an auto shop teacher replaced both headlight bulbs in one day. I felt quite satisfied with myself, and certain I had done my dad proud.

Considering my graduate students, all teachers or emerging teachers, I realized their most critical tool in the fight against learned helplessness in their students is the success experiences they provide. How many children and students begin each school year just as those college students in their professor’s experiment, hoping they’ll be up to the task, only to be confronted with problems that are, for them insurmountable? As the year advances they become more and more convinced of their limits and less and less likely to try. Educators and parents can prime students for taking risks and taking steps forward only after they provide them with opportunities that build their skills and sense of competence. This means knowing our children and students well enough to start them off with the tasks they can do. It means personalizing learning experiences so that every child has a chance to feel strong and capable.

I had the benefit of a successful bulb change under my belt before I tackled the tough light bulb. But I also had my father’s voice and image with me through the process. I could remember clearly the image of my dad tinkering under various car hoods, always with the attitude that every problem had a solution – and with the right tool, time, knowledge, and some luck, you could solve it. And while doing my mechanical problem solving, I remembered all the times my dad would offer encouragement over my shoulder, sharing his belief in me. We are examples for our children and students. How we approach problems and tasks will impact how they will. Our perseverance and hopefulness in the face of things that are hard for us teaches those watching that much is possible if we work at it. Our voices, loudly and clearly stating our belief in the abilities and strengths each child possesses build their emotional reserves. Whether it is stubborn light bulbs, school challenges, or harder life lessons, we can build their optimism and resilience and help keep helplessness at bay.

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