Friday, 27 March 2015

Resilience - moving beyond the learnt helplessness

Starting life in a new school is often one that is busy, trying to figure out what is happening, how things are done and the culture of the school.

We have these Habits at our school, the Hobsonville Habits. Unpacking these takes time and is part of the focus on the extended hub time.
Resilient: I don't give up when times are tough.
Curious: I am inquisitive and playful. I explore in search of awe and wonder.
Creative: I am imaginative and I explore the what if. I dream. I view things in different ways.
Reflective: I look back to look forward
Adventurous: I am will to take risks and look for opportunities which may not yet exist. I give everything a go.
Purposeful: I do this with intent and determination.
Contributive: I make a difference by using my skills, thoughts, and ideas when working with others.
Compassionate: I work with and learn from others.
Responsive: I am empathetic, aware, and flexible when making decisions and taking action.
resourceful: I use my initiative to seek our resources and use them in different ways.
One of the habits that I suppose I have seeked out to work with the students is one around Resilience.

Developing problem solving and resilience to combat learnt helplessness in Digital technologies.

I have been now teaching Digital Technologies for a number of years now and I have seen varying degrees of learnt helplessness. 

But what is learnt helplessness, it is a strategy for getting other people to solve problems for you. In the classroom, for pupils it may be getting the teacher, the teacher aide or other pupils to solve the problem for you.

In digital technologies, learnt helplessness can be seen in different ways. Sweet helplessness often manifests to the teacher as a pupils putting in a sweet helpless voice and declaring they are stuck. Aggressive helplessness manifests with a cross tone and the implication that they think the work is "stupid" or they don't get it. Being stuck is never a problem, but if you ask what they stuck on and the pupil cannot tell you or describe the problem of they give vague indications that they are stuck on everything, then there is a good chance they are using learnt helplessness to get you to solve their problem. Similar strategies will often be used with their peers, tailored to make the problem solver feel valued, superior or pressured into helping.

The problem us that many teachers and pupils will respond to this strategy in digital technologies by solving the problem for the pupil. Often excellent teachers, who wouldn't dream of doing work for pupils in other areas of the curriculum, will jump in and solve the problem for the pupil. The fact that so many pupils use learnt helplessness suggests that it has been a successful strategy for many.

Getting someone else to do the work for you would be an issue in any subject, but it is the antithesis of computer science with its emphasis on problem solving and debugging. In fact to solve a problem for a child is to deny them the opportunity to debug code or fix algorithm and as such is debilitating.

How has it come so prevalent in digital technologies? It is suspected that it has grown out of teacher fear or unfamiliarity with the subject material coupled with a belief that pupils know more about technology that adults combined with a n emphasis on the finished product rather than the process. All these factors have lead teachers to fix things for pupils rather than steer them to find solutions for themselves.

If we recognise this as an issue, how can we counter this and encourage resilience and problem solving.
  1. Recognising that this is an issue is the first step. We can't effect any change without recognising that something needs to change.
  2. It helps to know that this will take time to change your own practice and move students onto better strategies. 
  3. Establishing a positive class attitude towards problem solving. Computer science is very useful in that it calls errors bugs and find errors debugging. Although all bugs are caused by humans, the language is much more impersonal than mistakes which imply blame or fault. Using bug and debugging language is helpful. It is also important to let students know that mistakes/bugs are a normal part of digital technologies, they are to be expected, that professional programmers write code that have bugs all the time and that you will not be cross or upset if their work has bugs/mistakes. This needs to be made explicit in those first few weeks of class. This is part of the process.
  4. Even though it is a job of the teacher to help students through the learning, it is not the teacher job to fix their algorithms or debug their code. It is the job to provide useful strategies they can use to fix themselves. So that when they come to me they know they are looking for strategies to find and fix things themselves. 
  5. For those students that are transitioning from learnt helplessness to useful problem solving, they need to see what they are doing. Are they trying to get me to fix their code? Or are they trying to get me to solve the problem for them? In the same way we cannot move on until we recognised the issue. Of course good teachers will do this tactfully and with regards to the pupils known issues, but an element of challenge is inevitable to identify the issue. Warm and demanding. 
  6. Encouraging the class to not solve problems for others. They can describe what to do, but are not allowed to fo it for them, or give them the full solution. As you model this they will reflect this attitude to their peers. Having a ban on touching anyone's else keyboard or mouse is a good start. This could be compared to writing in someones maths or english exercise book.
  7. Moving students away from the language that personifies digital machines. "My computer hates me," is typical. If we look at Deterministic algorithms if we continue to put in the same inputs, we will get get the same outputs. We need to encourage students to think that an answer might not be available due to the logic of the computer, which is a attitude that is anti problem solving and incorrect.
  8. Have the other teachers in your class, including the teacher aide using the same strategies. Train them to help using good strategies and hints rather than solutions. 
If we don't identify the problem nothing will change. Is there a learnt helplessness within the other staff in your department or faculty. Is it worth the hassle to challenge this? We need to be tactful and recognise the good practice of teachers and the good problem solving strategies of other curriculum areas. 

Being Resilient: I don't give up when times are tough.

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