In the spring of l994, I was invited to be a participant in a joint venture
between the school division and Dr. Judith Newman, Dean of the Faculty
of Education. It began as a one year exploration in developing supportive
classroom environments for learning. Dr. Newman's expertise on literacy
and her action research stance of reflective practitioner framed the two
major components of our exploration.
The teachers involved in the Literacy Project, as it became known, were
from three elementary schools. We each selected one or two students to
focus upon. These students were identified as being significantly behind
in reading and writing. I chose Sandra, who had just been transferred
to special education from the resource program, as my target student.
She was in a regular grade 6 classroom. Her file indicated a literacy
level of between grade 2 and 3.
In the literacy project, we were encouraged to become better observers.
The three facilitators, lead by Judith, challenged us to look differently
at our assumptions and interpretations of our observations, not only of
the students, but of ourselves. We teachers were supported in our efforts
to engage openly in conversations with project colleagues about challenges
and contexts and to just try a range of alternate ways of attending to
the learning needs of the target students.
After initial discussions about the project and my early observations
of Sandra in her classroom, I chose to change her learning environment.
I met with her parents, and I began to find ways to shift the responsibility
and control for learning from others to Sandra.
At the close of the first year of the project each teacher was asked
to reflect on an aspect of the work with our target student. In my reflection,
I chose to discuss the wide array of avoidance strategies and the varying
degrees of anxiety exhibited by Sandra that frequently pre-empted her
learning. During the course of the year and in my project reflection,
I spoke of my sense that Sandra had somehow learned to be a helpless learner.
This past fall, I chose to take the Action Research course offered by
Judith to further my understanding of action research while continuing
a second year of the Literacy Project. I remained intrigued and committed
to exploring this notion of learned helplessness and to find ways of reversing
THEN AND THERE
At the start of school last year, Sandra was transferred to my special
education caseload from the resource program. She was in a grade six classroom
working at a grade two level. Her previous teachers believed Sandra needed
to have an instructional assistant beside her doing her work with her.
Hearing impaired, she couldn't keep up academically and she lacked motivation
to work independently. She was extremely dependent upon adults to direct
each step of her lessons. Frequently, during those first few weeks, I
would find Sandra copying what the instructional assistant had produced
on scrap paper. If the instructional assistant went on a break, so did
Sandra. If the instructional assistant was helping another child, Sandra
would sit passively and wait until redirected.
This was the second year Sandra was with the same classroom teacher.
Her classmates were polite to her. They seldom associated with her at
recess time and rarely would any see her socially outside of school.
When I sat and worked with Sandra, she frequently stalled-out on learning
tasks and criticized herself. She used negative body language to support
her helpless stance. She'd shrug her shoulders, or look around the room,
stare blankly, or place her hands in the air and shake her head, indicating
she was giving up. Sandra was not in charge of her learning. She had little
or no ownership for what was to be learned. However, she had learned to
con others into doing tasks for her. Her passive approach and procrastination
lead others to be sufficiently frustrated to do her work for her or to
leave her alone and not expect much from her cognitively, socially, or
emotionally. Sandra, and those who worked with her, seemed to be locked
into an unhealthy pattern of learned helplessness.
Seeing what was not working in the regular class and from the current
traditional instructional perspective, I chose to create a different.
Instructionally, I needed to change the materials, format of delivery,
and the way in which supports were provided. After moving Sandra to a
smaller group environment, Mary, my full time instructional assistant,
and I set up routine writing and reading activities. One of the first
things we both noticed when we began was how difficult it was for Sandra
to sustain routines or activity patterns on a daily basis.
At first, each day seemed like a new experience for her. She made comments
like: What do I do, I don't know, I don't get it, I'm stupid. Almost daily
her head would sink and her shoulders would droop until she would meld
into the desk and hope that both she and her inattentiveness would blend
into the woodwork and we would not challenge her to produce or to be responsible
for her learning. Asking Sandra to 'just try' and know it was okay to
make mistakes seemed beyond her trust and comprehension..
With shifts in environment, interactions, and the different ways supports
were provided, things gradually began to change. A shift from being learned
helpless to being an engaged learner was now in motion.
HERE AND NOW
Sandra had just set all her science experiment materials out on the
work table. Mary, her instructional assistant, was sitting ready to
provide a minimum level of support if needed. Sandra took charge, pouring
250 ml. of soda pop into a glass beaker. She watched intently and commented
on all of the bubbles. She carefully opened a tiny box of raisins, removed
four and placed them in the beaker. She leaned over the beaker with
her chin nearly touching the table, closely watching the bubbles work
upon the raisins. With her face fixed, her lips formed a smirk which
grew quickly into a smile.
After watching these proceedings, I looked down to resume my work.
I thought to myself, yes, Sandra is certainly engaged in her science
experiment this year. Last year, I provided major support for every
little part of the project. She is risking more, proud of herself, and
interested in doing things more on her own.
All of a sudden the silence was broken by a loud giggle and laughter.
Sandra shouted excitedly, "Look at that one raisin. It's jumping
up and down." Mary and I both smiled and watched this animated
child continue to talk about her observations during the five minute
experiment. Her face was radiant with a glow of confidence seldom seen
in the months previous.
Mary helped her Sandra record her observations and then Sandra repeated
the experiment four more times with different liquids. Each time she
attended diligently. For me, what mattered most in the doing of this
experiment was that Sandra took charge and did it for herself. From
the look of happy curiosity in her eyes, she enjoyed it too.
It was the second last day before the March Break. The bell rang. O
Canada came over the P.A. The announcements were short. A few minutes
later Sandra came to my classroom from her homeroom class. I sensed
she was agitated. "Mr. G., Gary just said to me that I was deaf."
She looked puzzled as if to ask, What do I do?
I smiled and shook my head. "You know Sandra," I said, "he
was trying to make you upset. He is correct; that is why you have two
hearing aids." I rehearsed a script with her- "Sandra, when
he comes in and you get a chance to talk to him you may want to tell
him, 'Yes, you are right, I am deaf. That is why I wear these hearing
aids.' That way you can turn around his negative comment." She
smiled and realized she didn't have to feel bad for being hearing impaired.
In fact, by using her hearing aids she knew she could hear quite well.
A few minutes later, Gary came in with the other students. We sat for
our morning meeting. After a few brief comments I informed Gary that
Sandra had something to say to him about his earlier remark. Sandra
made her statement with confidence and a little smile as she finished.
When I looked his way, he was staring down at the floor.
A couple of weeks before the spring break, Sandra's dad stopped by.
He shared an event that had happened on the weekend.
The family had gone to the swimming pool with Sandra, her brother
and cousin. Sandra finally decided she wanted to go in the deep pool.
The lifeguard told her she would have to swim a lap to get an L on her
arm which was to let people know she could swim in the deep pool. Her
brother and cousin walked along side the pool edge giving her words
of encouragement as she did her lap. Sandra got her L. She went to the
diving board and jumped off - for the first time. She went down the
big slide-for the first time. Afterwards she came up and said, "Dad,
It was easy. I don't know why I didn't try this sooner."
TWO GLIMPSES OF GETTING FROM THE THEN AND THERE TO THE
HERE AND NOW
During daily work Sandra, the instructional assistants and I attempted
to approach the learning from a child-centered perspective, consciously
monitoring ownership issues for Sandra's learning. Also our participation
in the Literacy Project provided one morning per week to involve other
educators to observe, interact with, and discuss Sandra's learning. The
following two critical incidents illustrate our just try approach.
In late October of the first year, Sandra was sitting in a cluster arrangement
with the Director of Student Services, the Principal, and myself. We were
all engaged in a conversation about the similarities between stories in
books, videos, and TV shows. We chatted about stories being somewhat predictable,
having one major problem, and that there is a trying of solutions to hopefully
resolve the problem.
This was a powerful moment. It resonated for me that this conversation
was not contrived. It was spontaneous, informative, and the first time
I saw Sandra contributing actively in a literacy learning activity. Sandra's
contributions and expressed understandings were the cues we used to guide
us in adjusting our conversations to stretch Sandra's experiences. When
Sandra offered a direction in the discussion, we followed the tangent
to the end and would refocus ourselves back to the main discussion.
All four of us were engaged in the collective conversation which lasted
fifteen to twenty minutes. Sandra, I believe, realized she was an equal
contributor and that her voice was valued. When she began to be overwhelmed
and anxious, her avoidance pattern of disengaging from the conversation
kicked in. Sandra's head and eyes lowered. One of us immediately read
the behavior and jumped in, not to rescue, but more importantly to redirect
the conversation and dignify her re-connection to her being an active
participant. It was excellent!
The second glimpse follows after three months of encouraging Sandra to
respond in writing regularly. Sandra had a limited set of skills and strategies
in dealing with work habits and classroom routines. Attempting to support
her development of these areas we put in place a series of simple procedures,
routines, and provided opportunities for Sandra.
One such daily ritual was for Sandra to respond to four questions at
the start of every morning. These responses were recorded in a journal
used used only for that purpose. The questions were: What did I do last
night?, What am I going to do today?, What am I going to do tonight?,
and How do I feel? It took three months to see consistent daily effort
The main intention of these questions was to encourage a commitment
to the daily routine. They also served as starting points for other purposes.
Sandra kept responding to these questions until after Christmas at which
point the responses werestock and Sandra would not elaborate and extend
Early in January, I was frustrated with not moving further in stretching
Sandra's responses. I shared Sandra's responses in the journal with Judith
and my block as to how to move beyond. We explored some alternatives and
I chose to just try the concept of having Sandra engage in written conversation
with the instructional assistants and myself. After exploring what it
would look like, Sandra was willing to just try too.
So each morning, Sandra would come into class and read and respond to
a question written in her journal. Afterwards, she would ask us to respond
or she would rise and carry her journal over to where we were and wait
for us to read her conversation and respond to her questions.
This new routine not only extended her responses to four questions,
but it moved us into a written conversation between Sandra and others.
We gradually went from the safe and predictable answers to standard questions
to a wider range of questions and answers with Sandra also risking to
ask others questions in a written forum.
HOW DID I GO ABOUT PROVIDING A SUPPORTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT TO SUPPORT
SANDRA IN REVERSING HER LEARNED HELPLESS STANCE?
I considered the point that human beings apply resistant strategies
in certain situations. In my role of teacher, I focused on forms of resistance
to learning. In Sandra's case, learned helplessness. I wanted to discover
and understand her reasons and identify her learned helpless strategies.
This I hoped would lead me to discover and provide strategies to counter
with positive and supportive interventions.
- I observed and attempted some interactions to find and reach
a basic understanding of her resistance patterns to learning in general,
and specifically to literacy.
- I met with her parents to seek an understanding of past efforts
and their perspectives on her learning.
- I became familiar with the research literature related to learned
helplessness to prove or disprove my assumptions.
A process of ongoing, cyclical reflection became paramount. I constantly
rethought how to approach matters of learning and support for Sandra differently.
The challenge remained one of providing appropriate strategies and skills
for self-control and responsibility for learning and simultaneously dismantling
her use of learned helpless strategies while still pursuing her literacy
and academic learning.
In my initial observations and interactions I noted the behaviors she
exhibited around others. Sandra's inability to perform at an academic
level comparable to her caused her to her shut down-she would appear lethargic,
her head would lower toward the desktop, she would stare blankly at whatever
book she was trying to read. If anyone asked her to respond she would
mumble inaudibly, or simply refuse to reply. She would hope that the adults
would become sufficiently frustrated, that they would do the task for
her, or simply leave her alone. Sandra was never a behavior problem. She
would just sit there passively.
Once Sandra was away from the grade six classroom, I was able to provide
a supportive environment with only a few other students for her to interact
with. In this protected situation I was more available to directly monitor
what she was doing and to create challenges I thought she could handle.
In the beginning, all I wanted was for her to try. She would sit and
stall. Sandra persisted with her learned helpless patterns and comments.
Julia, an instructional assistant and myself responded to her putting
herself down with, "Just do your best." I sat with her and prompted
her to do what she could. Julia and I praised whatever small attempts
Writing for Sandra was difficult. The differences between her verbal
and written language was quite striking. In writing, her thoughts were
disjointed and she was unwilling to put even partial words or thoughts
on paper. Yet in conversation, on the same topics, Sandra could express
her thoughts in a reasonably comprehensible way. The challenge for me
was to bring her conversation to print. I did that by having her write
three/four patterned sentences using simple words. Some of the words were
taken from a spelling list, other words were developed from contexts about
which she had some knowledge or from her own experiences.
Slowly, over time, I expected Sandra to do more on her own with greater
independence and a lighter degree of support. The tasks were not drastically
different. However, I made it clear that I expected her to make an attempt
by herself. I started placing more demands on her. I began expecting more
than just an attempt; I started looking for more than a a few words. I
expected her to write simple sentences and to read them back getting her
to check whether what she had written made sense.
Now, at the close of a second year with Sandra in this action research
process of reflection-in-action I have observed a gradual shifting of
control, responsibility, and ownership for learning from outside influences
and forces to Sandra, the learner, herself.
When we began, Sandra was an example of a learned helplessness individual;
a student relying almost totally on someone else to initiate and sustain
a learning activity. After we had worked for a few months, she started
to initiate tasks on her own and began to sustain herself at an activity
for a short interval before needing to be prompted again.
After nearly two years of observing and attending carefully to different
just try approaches, I found significant growth for myself as an educator.
Sandra can now attend to and complete a number of tasks after receiving
the initial directions and a minimum of monitoring from a distance. I
can now attend to observing student and adult interactions with greater
understanding and insight. The behavioral cues speak loudly as indicators
for the ways we need to reflect on the needs and possible interactions
In mid September of the first, I visited Sandra's home to discuss Sandra's
Individualized Educational Plan with her parents. I was greeted at the
door and taken to the dining room table and offered coffee or tea. I sat
on the broad side of the dining table and her parents sat on the other.
Sandra nervously milled about curiously wondering what we were about to
say to each other. After a few pleasantries, Sandra and her brother went
to their rooms and we began.
The conversation that took place over the next two and a half hours
was both emotional and passionate. Sandra's parents shared health difficulties
at birth and the late identification of her hearing impairment. I shared
what I knew from her files, the I.E.P. plan, and my own observations of
Sandra after the opening weeks of school. Her parents were very sincere
and open to considering some different approaches. I informed them of
the Literacy Project and that Sandra was the student I would like to focus
on. They were supportive. We discussed the importance of open communication,
an eclectic approach, and the need to be a team to support Sandra's learning
efforts. Her parents continued to hope for a thread that would make things
start to hold the fragments of her learning together and weave for Sandra
at least a functional level of literacy leading towards some degree of
independence in her adult life. As I left the dining table that evening
I was inspired. They had provided meaningful background information and
had helped me to understand their perspective, tensions, and perseverance
at advocating their daughter's need for help.
What I realized after reflecting on this information was that help did
not necessarily mean more or direct adult intervention. It meant I would
need to redefine what that help would look like. Yes, her parents were
keenly interested in making sure everything that could be done was being
done. My job was to determine how best to do it. The help must be supportive
Over the two year period Sandra's parents and I have continued to work
as a team. We have realized the importance of maintaining open communication
and the need to support each other. The differences of the just try approaches,
and our mutual desire to make the messages between home and school congruent,
forced not only fundamental changes for myself, but also for the parents
with regardto issues of perceptions, expectation, ownership, and control
for the learning.
The reading of the research literature took on a different meaning and
purpose when working in the action research framework. Instead of looking
to what experts write first and then searching to find it in my situation,
the action research frame has supported first recording the evidence of
my situation through observing critical incidents, reflections, and conversations
with others. From the common threads that emerged over time, I then began
to go to the literature that spoke to the emergent themes; in this case
learned helplessness as a form of passive resistance. I used the literature
to guide my inquiry, to affirm or challenge some of the choices I made,
and to provoke me into reframing my own practice. Reading became an important
part of the reflection-in-action (Schon, 1983).
In considering the notion of learned helplessness, I was drawn to a
review of literature ranging from John Dewey's Experience and Education
(1938) through to Steven Covey's popular book on the Seven Habits of Highly
Effective People (1989). I reviewed material on learned helplessness (Slusky,
1994; Oelwein, 1995), procrastination (Fiore, 1989), on not-learning (Kohl,
1994), on codependency (Beattie, 1989, 1992; Bradshaw, 1988), critical
reflection on learning and teaching (Newman, 1991), a study on reading
instruction (Garcia et al, 1995), and Multiple Intelligences (Gardner,
Dewey was convinced that basing education upon personal experience may
mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the mature and
the immature than ever existed in the traditional school (p. 21). The
relationship which developed between Sandra and me over the past year
and one-half has illustrated his belief in action. I believe it is through
the exploration together of the instructional challenges that dramatically
shifted my ways of dealing with Sandra's specific learning needs and her
ways of perceiving herself as a capable learner. As we improved the quality
of her learning experiences we also demonstrated what Dewey refers to
as continuity and interaction. He stated that the two principles of continuity
and interaction are not separate from each other. They interact and unite.
They are the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience (p. 44). A
third point that was significant for me was Dewey's identification of
the marginalized student. These students, when they come to school, are
already victims of injurious conditions outside of the school and have
become so passive and unduly docile that they fail to contribute (p. 56).
Sandra's medical history and late identification of hearing loss were
significant factors to be considered in her having developed this passive
and docile stance.
One final statement of Dewey's that speaks to the reflection-in-action
and collaborative nature of the enterprise is that development occurs
through reciprocal give-and-take, the teacher taking but not being afraid
also to give. The essential point is that the purpose grow and take shape
through the process of social intelligence (p. 67). In our interactions,
I would attempt to set expectations a little above Sandra's horizons.
Some days it worked, other days not. Mostly on-the-fly, I would reassess
and adjust as needed. At times even adjusting didn't work. Those were
the moments that cast me as the learner and Sandra, the teacher. I was
seeking to understand and learn in order to better understand Sandra.
Dr. Alan Slusky, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical neuropsychology,
presented a paper at the 28th annual conference of the Council for Exceptional
Children in Winnipeg in 1994. In his paper he covered several learned
helplessness topics. He began by citing Robert Ziegler's three stages
of children's reactions (Ziegler, 1981).
Stage 1: The initial reaction to learning difficulties may be through
intrapunitive or extra-punitive behavior. The quiet child may be easier
to ignore yet it is equally important to detect the reaction of withdrawal.
Stage 2: The disengagement reaction demonstrates that the avoidance of
materials is more intense. It is more difficult to engage the student
in learning tasks. The student develops an I don't care attitude which
shuts off communication, exchange, and learning. Stage 3: The defensiveness
reaction encrusts the I don't care attitude. Denial and negativism are
acute, and from the teacher's perspective these students accept little
or no responsibility. These students expend a great deal of energy to
show that school, teachers, and the 'good' kids actually are the dumb
Sandra was solidly at stage 2.
Next, Slusky listed the main characteristics of learned helplessness:
- slow to start a project or assignment
- gives nonverbal signs of defeat
- frequently requires teacher prompting
- quick to give up at first obstacle
- does not ask for assistance
- may be destructive or withdrawn
- exhibits little pride in his/her work
Slusky describes the passive learner as one who constantly relies on
others, blames others, and requires both extrinsic motivation and reinforcement.
In contrast, he describes the active learner as one who constantly controls
his or her own behavior, is independent, is responsible for outcomes,
has intrinsic motivation, and has self-control techniques.
To Sandra, extrinsic rewards meant little. It took intrinsic moments
which came from smiles and positive self comments such as "I did
good and I know that" to start her toward self-reliant learning.
Kohl, in I Will Not Learn From You (1994) looks at resistance to learning
through socially and culturally constructed beliefs and values. While
for Sandra this was not a conscious act, her lived beliefs demonstrated
that she too responded to her learning with resistance and a type of control
Oelwein (1995) found in her research that some down syndrome students
develop behaviors to avoid learning situations. By distracting their teacher,
refusing to cooperate, or by introducing a different agenda, these students
have learned ways of avoiding failure and not have to complete tasks asked
The book, The Now Habit (Fiore 1989) is dedicated to identifying and
exploring ways of dealing with procrastination. In it he explains that
procrastination is a symptom rather than a problem. He contends
we procrastinate when we fear a threat to our sense of worth and independence.
We only act lazy when our natural drive for fruitful activity is threatened
or surpressedthe deep inner fears that cause us to seek such unproductive
forms of relief are suggested to be the fear of failure, the fear of
being imperfect, perfectionism, and the fear of impossible expectations,
of being overwhelmed. These fears prevent us from working on and attaining
possible goals and relationships (p. 5-6).
This dsecription fits Sandra well. Through her, I have come to realize
that fear is not always overtly detectable.
Newman discussed 'Berlin Wall' as someone who has built solid defenses
behind which to hide, or someone who insists on playing 'make me' (p.
85) At the outset, Sandra presented very high, silent, and thick Berlin
Walls. Over a long period of time our combined efforts wore away parts
of these walls. Now we can hurdle them.
With her belief that students control what they learn (p. 89) Newman
explains that for the learner it is their willingness to 'just try' [that]
makes all the difference (p. 90). I found that for Sandra I would frequently
let her know it is okay to make mistakes. "Just try your best. We
learn from our mistakes." After many brief attempts at just trying,
Sandra began to extend the try's and felt good about her successes.
The findings of a qualitative literacy study Garcia et al. (1995) at
the seventh grade level drew some parallels with Sandra's situation. While
all of the nine participating teachers in this study believed they were
operating their classrooms in a child-centered manner, the researchers
contended that the classrooms were teacher-centered and content driven.
The average and under-achievers were more teacher-directed than the high-achievers.
Teachers tended to have different expectations. The weaker students were
expected to orally read content areas in class, rarely permitted to silently
read in class, and not given homework because the teachers believed they
likely couldn't get work done without their assistance. The weaker students'
learning was highly controlled by the teachers with little chance of ownership
by the students themselves.
The findings revealed that researcher perceptions differed from teacher
perceptions. In the researchers' view the average and under-achievers
were in an environment of teacher-centered and content mindsets that significantly
altered the intended learning outcomes and actually removed rather than
promoted a child-centered approach that would lead to a healthy growth
of self -power, control, and responsibility. Thus, teachers were promoting
the antithesis of what they said they wanted; they were setting conditions
leading to learned helplessness not only in literacy learning but all
Gardner's seven intelligences theory (Gardner, 1993) presents a helpful
model from which to view facets of intellect development. He contends
that there are at least seven identifiable intelligences. He also expressed
his belief that there are still other intelligences yet to be identified.
What particularly caught my attention with regard to learned helplessness
were the intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences.
Gardner describes intrapersonal intelligence as the knowledge of the
internal aspects of a person: access to one's own feeling life, one's
range of emotions, the capacity to effect discriminations among these
emotions and eventually to label them and to draw upon them as a means
of understanding and guiding one's own behavior. A person with good intrapersonal
intelligence has a viable and effective model of himself or herself. Since
this intelligence is the most private, it requires evidence from language,
music, or some other more expressive form of intelligence if the observer
is to detect it at work (p. 24-25).
Interpersonal intelligence builds on a core capacity to notice distinctions
among others; in particular, contrasts in their moods, temperaments, motivations,
and intentions. In more advanced forms, this intelligence permits a skilled
adult to read the intentions of others, even when these have been hidden
To merge these two areas one finds that interpersonal intelligence allows
one to understand and work with others; intrapersonal intelligence allows
one to understand and work with oneself. In the individual's sense of
self, one encounters a melding of inter -and intra-personal components
With Sandra, the growth in literacy learning was preceded by growth
in her intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. It is through a self
realization that she successfully became a risk-taker. Personally taking
charge has allowed Sandra to exercise greater power, control, and responsibility
for her learning choices. It really comes down to the student developing
positive beliefs and values about themselves and the world around them.
Steven Covey (1989) stresses a proactive process by which people can
become more effective and move beyond learning strategies and skills that
were identified in the codependency literature of John Bradshaw (1988)
and Beattie (1989, 1992) as unhealthy. Like Bradshaw and Beattie, Covey
speaks to the rescripting of the beliefs, values, and dysfunctional aspects
imbedded into our birth through adulthood relationships. He advocates
helping adults confront their co-dependancy and developing new strategies.
Sandra now considers that she has a voice. She is now starting to exercise
healthier strategies and new found skills to discover, clarify, and reassess
her earlier beliefs and values with regard to herself and those around.
As I reflect, I think about that puppy-dog look at the start. Sandra's
words and body language repeatedly shouted out "Help me, I can't
help myself." Then I think my own growth. I've become better at watching
for that look in the past year and a half and in the process, I've become
better at watching, questioning, and reflecting on my own teaching practice.
Working with Sandra and supporting her to meet challenges has cast me
in a very different role-that of a proactive reflection-in-action researcher/learner/teacher.
I realized we needed to work in very different ways. At the outset, that
meant a change in environment, a change in methods, attending to Sandra's
social and emotional states throughout the day and getting a reading on
the home environment/support.
After getting a handle on her anxiety/avoidance, we adopted a just try
approach. It worked very well indeed. People involved in the literacy
project would sometimes see Sandra in the small group setting and at other
times by herself. After these sessions we adults would meet to discuss
our observations and discuss some strategies to test out. This feedback
became very important for me in helping me rethink instruction. I needed
to understand learned helplessness in order to set up learning situations
which might foster more independence and self-reliance.
I believed at the start I was looking at literacy issues. A child-centered
approach in the smaller setting on a daily basis with others offering
outside perspectives once per week did on the surface look at literacy
learning. Coming to explore the notion of Sandra appearing to be learned
helpless forced me to rethink even more.
Literacy learning would either come after or in a companion process
as her resistance avoidance and anxiety) was the main area that fundamentally
needed to be addressed. The literacy became the curriculum content that
allowed us to explore ways of attending to the issues of self -power,
control, and responsibility.
For me this meant as an educator I must look at students differently.
I must be a better observer, particularly of the students who struggle
rather than label their actions and behaviors as that of learning disabled
children. I need to know these students more directly and continue to
respond rather than react immediately to the cues provided by the students.
That requires me to take a "detective' investigative stance rather
than an imparter of knowledge stance.
In looking at the whole child in the environments of home and schooling,
I found myself more sensitive to the child's inner tensions. For me to
realize Sandra's tensions of self -power, control, and responsibility
and her responses to the stimuli in her world was a fundamental hurdle
to be bridged. We developed our working relationship towards supported
learning. The literacy learning focus provided her with language to better
express herself. The curriculum content for literacy learning could not
be taught in isolation from the issues of learned helplessness she held
with regard to her self.
In making the observations as to her levels of anxiousness and the variety
of avoidance strategies Sandra exhibited, I realized my own learnings.
Not only was I attending to her by becoming a better observer, I began
to be more aware of observing what I was doing to support or stall the
learning momentum during her tasks.
Suddenly, I became acutely aware of how I had begun to watch the other
students in the room and started to more carefully monitor their avoidance
strategies and states of anxiousness. Almost instinctively, I started
to shift how I was working with them. I more consciously reminded them
of their choices, responsibilities, and that my expectation for them to
just try their best. It became clear to everyone that to do nothing or
be helpless were no longer choices.
Beattie, M. 1989 Beyond codependency: And getting better all the time.
Center City, MN: Hazeldon Foundation.
Beattie, M. 1992 Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others
and start caring for yourself. 2nd ed. Center City, MN: Hazeldon Foundation.
Bradshaw, J.E. 1988 The family: A revolutionary way of self-discovery.
Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Covey, S. R. 1989 The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful
lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dewey, J. 1963 Experience and education. New York, NY: Collier Books.
Garcia, G.E. et al. 1995 Reading instruction and educational opportunity
at the middle school level (pp.2-17. In Center for the Study of Reading
Technical Report No.622. Champaign, IL: College of Education, University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Gardner, H. 1993 Multiple Intelligences: The theory in practice. New
York, NY: Basic Books.
Kohl, H. 1994 I won't learn from you. New York, NY: The New Press.
Newman, J.M. 1991 Interwoven Conversations: Learning and teaching through
critical reflection. Toronto, ON: OISE Press.
Oelwein, P.L. 1995 Teaching reading to children with down syndrome:
A guide for parents and teachers. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.
Schon, D. 1983 The reflective practitioner. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Slusky, A. 1994 Learned helplessness: What it is and how to help. A
workshop paper presented to the 28th Annual Conference of the Council
for Exceptional Children.
as Inquiry ] [ Literacy & Learning ]