Learned Hopelessness: challenging the notion of destiny

“Children’s lives to be worse in the future”, so read a headline following a recent Ipsos Mori survey where almost two-thirds of people believed the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Such a headline chimed with something Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief HMI for Scotland, recently identified when he referred to one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education to be a young person’s perceived sense of ‘destiny’. It’s ironic that Graham should use such a word given its significance to Scottish History – to which, of course, I refer to our iconic ‘Stone of Destiny’. However, in Graham’s sense of the word it was not to be a hopeful, aspirational, or confident view of the future, but rather quite the opposite. In fact he was referring to a ‘hopeless’ view of the future, a future set out for you by dint of your socio-economic background, which – to our eternal shame – has more of an influence upon your educational outcomes and future than just about any other country in the developed world.

It was this notion of hopelessness that triggered for me a connection with what psychologist Martin Seligman termed to be ‘learned helplessness’. The idea refers to the phenomenon where a person’s sense of personal agency, to do and achieve things for themselves, is undermined by circumstances from which they cannot escape. Eventually the person gives up and accepts their situation regardless of the harm it may be causing them.

By linking Donaldson’s notion of a damaging destiny and Seligman’s concept of helplessness, I wonder if we are facing an even more pervasive limit to personal growth. I am referring here to the challenges facing all of our young people, regardless of socio-economic background, as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The concern here has to be that our next generation becomes so conditioned by circumstances to accept their “destiny” and in so doing fall victim to ‘learned hopelessness’.

Imagine the impact upon a generation of children and young people who come to accept that their future is hopeless and learn from their peers, their parents, the media, and society in general that their destiny is mapped out and that they cannot expect to experience the ‘happiness’ of previous generations.

Such an assumption might lead those of involved in education to conclude that whatever we do as teachers our young people are destined to have unhappy and unfulfilling lives, as their standard of living is going to be lower than our own generation.

However, such an assumption is based upon the premise that happiness is in direct proportion to one’s standard of living. If that was the case, it would have to follow that our parents were unhappier, than we are, and their parents, in turn, must have been unhappier than them and so and on, and so on.

In fact the evidence is quite the opposite with a 2009 OECD report showing that for most of the last 25 years, people born between the Great Depression and the end of World War II were more likely than early baby boomers to report being very happy.

It is surely the role of teachers then to challenge the orthodoxy that young people’s futures will be “worse”.   For what is teaching if not to plant a seed of hope in a future beyond our time? No successful teacher I have ever known has resigned themselves to believing that their efforts are not imbued by that sense of hope for the future. In fact that’s perhaps the single most defining factor between the teacher who goes through the motions of teaching, and the teacher who transforms the lives of young people by sharing their belief that anything is possible.

For it seems to me we have two choices. Firstly, we could sign up to the notions of despair and hopelessness, and accept that children’s lives will be worse, regardless of whatever action we take. Alternatively, we could believe, that our efforts will provide a foundation upon which a young person can find happiness from being absorbed in a personal interest; can be resilient and can cope with future challenges; lives a life of personal meaning by having a sense of belonging; and, has the wherewithal to accomplish their own personal goals. Above all we must recognise that a person’s happiness in the future will depend on their capacity to build and sustain social ties as part of a community, or even communities.

Surely such an inventory describes much of what we are attempting to achieve through Curriculum for Excellence. I know that most parents that I speak to, first and foremost want their children to have happy lives. At a time when we see students with five ‘A’ passes at Higher and First Class degrees struggling to make their way in the world it’s never been more important that we take a more rounded view of education in order to equip young people with the necessary skills and outlooks to face an uncertain future.

If then, we are to avoid “learned hopelessness” we need to ensure that we are not “teaching hopelessness”. In order to achieve that goal we would be well advised to learn from a small country such as Bhutan, whose strategy for promoting the national well being of their population is based upon their commitment to “Gross National Happiness”, or does such a notion fail to resonate with the Scottish psyche?


2 thoughts on “Learned Hopelessness: challenging the notion of destiny

  1. This post strikes a chord with concepts that Harry Burns has been developing over the last year or two about an asset based approach to health. He amplifies his thinking in his annual report as Chief Medical Officer (See chapter 5) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/12/13153419/0

    It is a complex concept – but put simply the idea is that for too long services have focused on the deficits of people and communities in need rather than their strengths, and that this approach can inadvertently create poor outcomes by getting in the way of people or community as agents of change. In other words services can create an environment which teaches people or whole communities to be helpless and dependant on the servies provided to them.
    In an asset based approach the learning and care generated by links between people and / or agencies are key drivers for change rather than plans or interventions from an external agency.
    This is a quote from chapter five of the CMO’s report
    “The asset based approach sets out to work with individuals to make visible their skills and give them confidence that they are valued. Critically, it allows people to become connected with each other and encourages a spirit of cooperation and caring for one another. Communities in which violence, drug addiction and crime are common are often full of suspicion and mistrust. As confidence and self-esteem builds in individuals, neighbours learn to trust each other and community cohesion is built.”

    In his report he describes how acting on this way of thinking would represent a complete change of perspective for many service planners and managers. It’s probably as fundmental a difference in thinking and outlook as you have described above in respect of approaches to teaching.

    In answer to your question – I think Scotland psyche is essentially an optimistic and caring one, probably more so than the neighbours. It is also a place full of people (from all parts of the UK and abroad) who want to think about Scotland as a country that can do things differentlly; and who are appalled by the inequality that holds the country back and isn’t inhibited by a fear of change.

  2. Pingback: Don Ledingham's Learning Log » Helping young people to be resilient=Curriculum for Excellence=Resiliency

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