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Autonomous Learning Behaviors Vs. Learned Helplessness: What’s Gender Got to Do with It? Part II


Kenny, an 11th grader at a school where I am the academic director, is struggling universally in all his classes. The school which Kenny attends is one with high academic pressures but also with a soul, truly concerned with the psychological and emotional well being of its students. A tough combination to pull off these days regarding this fine balance. Kenny came to the school in 9th grade with a host of learning issues, but according to his previous middle school, he is highly functional and was successful in most of his classes. His parents were providing him with the support he did not need.

This last line does not contain a typo. As I wrote: His parents were providing him with the support he did not need.

Kenny performed adequately in his first year at the school in his 9th grade year. Mostly Bs, some Cs and we collectively, teachers, administrators, and parents, attributed his academic results to his transition to high school and a more challenging workload. He also appeared happy and well adjusted, making new friends and participating in campus life. If we had been paying closer attention though we would have seen some important patterns.

Kenny did not know how to ask questions in class when he was confused or did not understand something. When teachers reached out to him to ask if he understood the material, his consistent response through an often brash smile was, “I’ll wait until I get home to figure it out”.He often was unable to tell teachers where he could find assignments or teacher notes from the classes, whether online or when printed out for him.

Alarm bells went off in his 10th grade year when his first quarter report card came back with 2 Fs. Email chains shot back and forth from two, yes two, learning specialists he was working with, a tutor, and his teachers. His grades seemed to restore themselves to externally perceived levels of normalcy, and once again, we collectively stuck our heads in the sand like ostriches, compiling a strange list of reasons for the dip in his performance. For his parents, it was his new and first girlfriend, for teachers it was the jump in the “level” of the material, as if he had entered MIT after 9th grade, and for advisors and administrators it was the “black hole” of being a 15-16 year old 10th grade young male (“I look like I need a shave, but I actually have the maturity of a 9 year old”).

By 11th grade, nothing seemed to be working in regards to school for Kenny. He was all over the place, weeks behind, not willing to reach out to his teachers for support, and his parents just kept throwing more and more money and resources at the problem. His team of support at home, which now included two learning specialists and two tutors, were not only unhelpful, they were actually part of a simmering problem which had been percolating even before Kenny came to our school. While trying to do their best for Kenny to support his learning needs, they had aided and abetted a pattern of behavior which never allowed Kenny to develop the inner resources (motivation, resilience, determination...etc) to solve and overcome problems independently.

His grades seemed to restore themselves to externally perceived levels of normalcy, and once again, we collectively stuck our heads in the sand like ostriches, compiling a strange list of reasons for the dip in his performance.

There was always someone waiting at home to fill in the gaps, to find the latest assignment for him on the school website, to explain teacher directions for assignments, to show him where to go in the textbook to find the right information. The reason that work was getting done, handed in, and completed had only partially to do with Kenny as a learner. Instead, in very critical areas, Kenny had developed a pattern of learned helplessness: only when there was someone available to help, guide, interpret, push, and prod did anything ever get done. And the worst part was Kenny did not even know how to ask a good question. The best he could muster was, “I don’t understand”.

In Part I of this post, we looked at the idea of Autonomous Learning Behaviors and how, particularly in math, students who demonstrate the ability to work on and solve ever more complex problems in math, independently, seem to excel more in math class. But as I mentioned previously, this is actually a more complex narrative regarding student learning than whether students can function independently.

Kenny is more of an extreme story (one that is becoming less extreme every year) but, to varying degrees, students develop learned helplessness for a number of reasons and gender perceptions and attitudes overlay much of this narrative.

Males can develop what appear to be more Autonomous Learning Behaviors, and, concurrently, they also receive at least 3 times the attention from teachers in classes. While these two pieces of data seem contradictory, teachers are more likely to engage male students in specific directed academic support, answering their academic concerns which boys demand more readily than females. Teachers perceive them, particularly in subjects such as math and science, as not only more interested, but naturally gifted (an essentialist argument) which then spirals upward into reinforced perceptions of genderized notions of identity in learning.

Kenny is more of an extreme story (one that is becoming less extreme every year) but, to varying degrees, students develop learned helplessness for a number of reasons and gender perceptions and attitudes overlay much of this narrative in learning.

Females, on the other hand, ask less specific questions, such as “I don’t understand” which creates the perceptions, again, of lack of interest, less intellectual engagement, and lower ability, which is then reinforced by less direct intervention by teachers for support and then more reinforced self and teacher notions of learned helplessness. In other words, men seek more specific support, they get it, increasing their abilities and success, women are less assertive and when they ask for it, are less specific, leading to less confidence and less success. One group spirals up, the other down almost entirely based on gender perceptions, particularly in a subject such as mathematics which is already so laden with false binary gender assumptions in learning.

In other subject areas which perceptually align themselves as “feminine” such as literacy and writing, men’s learned helplessness takes on the trademark of an anti-school sentiment. Boys are seen as “lacking interest” or “bored”; their struggles in these subjects are defined as just not “for them”. This position both gives them a free pass or permission not to engage and achieve as well as allows them to maintain their narrow and entrenched versions of masculinity developed over years and years. There is not a large leap, for males, between playing dress up and reading in schools, both identified as feminine activities which are perceived to denigrate a hegemonic and often crippling version of masculinity. While this position looks different from what takes place in areas such as math and science for females, the result is students who feel as if they do not have access to their entire education.

Boys are seen as “lacking interest” or “bored”; their struggles in these subjects are defined as just not “for them”. This position both gives them a free pass or permission not to engage and achieve as well as allows them to maintain their narrow and entrenched versions of masculinity developed over years and years.

Sometimes, a question in a classroom is not just a question. It is a window into the mind as well as the hearts of our students. Teachers need training in identifying the types of questions a student asks in order to evaluate properly what precipitates her inquiries. Is a child digging deeper, attempting to know better what they are learning? Or is the question more a statement of attitude generated by an unnecessary developed sense of helplessness based on constructed notions of gender?


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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy