Important Studies – Learned Helplessness

Important Studies – Learned Helplessness

By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.

In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.   

The eighth article in this series explores the phenomenon of learned helplessness. It is among the most important ideas unveiled by the social sciences because of the magnitude of impact on individuals and society.  



The Study – Learned Helplessness

As has been the case with many scientific discoveries, the identification of learned helplessness was serendipitous.

In the mid-1960s, Martin Seligman and some colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania were conducting research on classical conditioning, the process by which people and animals learn to associate one stimulus with another stimulus. Think Pavlov’s dog salivating when it heard the bell.

In Seligman’s experiment, the ringing of a bell was paired with a light shock to a dog. Seligman observed something interesting after a few pairings. The dog reacted, as if shocked, simply when the bell was sounded … before the shock was administered.

In subsequent experiments, a dog was placed in a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence; a barrier that the dog could easily climb over. On one side of the short barrier the floor was electrified. When Seligman placed dogs on the electrified side and administered light shocks, he expected them to jump to the other side of the fence. This study is among the classics in psychology because something utterly contrary to expectations occurred next. The dogs simply laid down and did not try to escape the shocks.

This caused the entire trajectory of the experiment to change. Seligman posited that the dogs learned from the first part of the experiment. They learned to be helpless because there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks. To test this idea, the experimenters brought in new dogs and found that with no history these dogs would quickly escape the shock by hopping over the barrier.

The behavior of not escaping was described as learned helplessness. An animal (or human), despite having the potential to get out of a painful/negative situation, does not attempt to get out of that situation because the past has taught them that they are helpless. From this initial experiment came thousands of follow-up studies on both animals and humans that demonstrated the veracity of this finding.

General Implications

One of the most important follow-up findings was the application of learned helplessness to human beings subjected to prolonged negative situations. That is … people too … learn to be helpless, even when success is quite conceivable and achievable.

Why would this be? Does this contradict what we know about human nature?

Seligman, and others, went to explain that the insidious pervasiveness of the learned helplessness effect, especially in humans, results from thinking that it is better to not try than to suffer the embarrassment of failing, looking weak or looking “stupid.”

Implications for Education

The implications of learned helplessness for education are profound.

Over the years, millions in the education system have said, what’s the use of trying? Millions end up, really through no fault of their own, in a place far below their potential. Their experience has been so consistently difficult that they have learned to be helpless. Moreover, the challenge is compounded because learned helplessness begets learned helplessness. Furthermore, ill-equipped educational systems beget learned helplessness, far too often.

For example, we have all heard ourselves or someone else say, “I am not good in math,” or “I am not a good test taker,” etc. This might be true to a certain extent. But I believe that much of the “helplessness” is not warranted. Most of the time it is not the student, it is the system.

Research has demonstrated that it is difficult for a roomful of students to succeed if they are taught the same thing in the same manner using the same methods.

We all learn differently and that is at the core of Currey Ingram Academy’s pedagogy. Our mission is to empower students to reach their fullest potential. In our personalized academic program, we use evidence-based instruction and individualized learning plans to ensure success for each learner. Our curriculum is differentiated to challenge or remediate when appropriate so students find daily success. And we celebrate their successes — both small and large.

We host monthly “Celebrating Strengths & Talents” assemblies across our divisions to lift up our students.  And at graduation, each of our seniors gives a speech highlighting their favorite memories and what they learned from Currey Ingram Academy. At the heart of these speeches is a sense of empowerment.


learned helplessness
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

Just as helplessness can be learned it can be unlearned or prevented through educational systems that are intentionally organized to set students up on the road to success. Equipping students with control over their learning and with knowledge on how to advocate for their learning needs creates a foundation from which they can achieve success.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.

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