“When we forget we have the ability to choose, we feel helpless to do anything about our situation”
Welcome back to the PE Umbrella my friends, for what is my first reflection episode in a number of months. The basis for this weeks episode stems from a book that I have recently read. The book is called ‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown.
While this is not an education book per se, there were some outstanding points made throughout, from which I was able to make concrete connections to education. It had me reflecting deeply on my career as a classroom teacher right through to my current role as a PE adviser and teacher for Sporting Influence. This episode however, focuses solely on a concept that is termed ‘Learned Helplessness’ and how I believe it is spreading through the current generation of children. I share what is meant by this term, how to spot a child who may have developed this, but more importantly what we can do to hopefully prevent it happening to the children that we teach! I guarantee that you will resonate with what I am about to share…
First and foremost, I had never heard of ‘Learned Helplessness’ before reading about it in this book. So I’m presuming many of you are wondering what it actually means? Well allow me to explain. The whole crux of this concept boils down to having the ability to ‘choose’ in life. We ALL have the ability to choose in life. Whether this be choosing to exercise or not, choosing to eat healthy or not, choosing to wake up early or not. It is one thing that we all have. Greg McKeown states that:
“The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away – it can only be forgotten”
Learned Helplessness, therefore, is when as creatures (humans or animals) we forget that we have the power to choose and thus feel powerless to change our situation.
Research conducted by Martin Seligman and Steve Maier on German Shephard dogs was used to highlight this theory in action. Read all about it HERE or listen to this episode of the podcast as I explain it in more detail. The same effect can be seen on Elephants even today…
This whole theory led me into thinking, Is this the root cause of the most common phrase that I hear in schools today? The phrase in question is ‘I CAN’T DO IT!’. I believe that learned helplessness maybe partly to blame for this. Learned Helplessness in action would be a child who struggles early on with maths. They try hard but never get any better so eventually give up. They believe that nothing they do will matter so why bother even trying. In a PE setting at a simplistic level, if a child struggles with throwing and catching at a very early age and continue failing, why would they want to continue? Accepting that they just can’t do it becomes their default response and they learn to feel helpless. They believe that they have no choice. Do you know any children like this?
My initial response and instinct on how we combat this is an obvious one, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. For me it simply highlights the importance of differentiation to support the children who struggle in PE very early on and scaffold their learning so they experience what I call ‘Small Wins’. This is something that ALL top practitioners do day in day out and year in year out instinctively. But do we all do this? It really is essential early on to stop the ‘I Can’t’ culture from setting in. So what next? Let’s take this into consideration with every lesson that we plan and teach and start asking ourselves ‘Am I promoting learned helplessness in this session?’ or ‘Am I providing the opportunity for my class to achieve small wins?’.
Be sure to listen to this episode of the PE Umbrella Podcast as I cover this topic in more depth and share with you how I would scaffold a simple throwing and catching activity to ensure the best possible chance of small wins for all children involved!
As always, I want to hear from YOU, The PE Umbrella community, and your own experiences or opinions on this matter. Have you witnessed ‘Learned Helplessness’? How do you ensure you differentiate to allow for small wins? Please do get in touch on Twitter using @ryansporting or use the contact form to email firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you have found value listening to today’s episode and I look forward to seeing you next time ‘Under the Umbrella’.