I am currently reading the book Learned Helplessness by Martin Seligman and crew. It discusses how animals and humans basically stop trying after being exposed to inescapable shocks for a long enough period.
The initial experiments were done with rats and dogs. Basically, they put a dog in a cage that was inescapable and shocked it a bunch (80-100 times) to produce what they labeled "learned helplessness". What this meant was that when they later put the dog in an escapable cage and shocked them, the dogs wouldn't even try to escape, even though it was now possible. All they had to do was jump over a small hurdle and the shock would stop.
These initial experiments led to many more, with different set ups and different animals, including humans. What they all showed was that once animals or humans learn the "shock" is uncontrollable they become passive in their attempts to escape. It doesn't have to be an electric shock, it can be anything that is unpleasant.
This lack of control also bleeds over into all the other aspects of a person's life as well, not just the particular environment it occurred in. This means that after 80-100 "shocks" people can basically "learn" they lack control and no longer be active in their attempts to better their situation.
How does this relate to the classroom I mentioned in the title? Well, how long does it take for a student to get 80-100 "F" papers or other failure assignments? Not very long. And this is bad because part of the learned helplessness phenomena is that learning becomes almost impossible! Once a kid learns they lack control, they literally can't learn as well.
This was shown repeatedly in experiments with rats who had to solve a maze problem. If a single irrelevant cue was added to the maze, such as a light, the helpless rats were unable to learn the solution. However, normal rats did just fine. In fact, the helpless rats were able to learn the solution the same as normal rats if there were no irrelevant cues, but just one made it impossible.
This fact, coincidentally, is extremely connected to yesterday's post on noise and signal. Essentially the researchers showed that any noise at all prevented helpless rats from learning, even with 150 trial attempts! The helplessness phenomena is attributed heavily to neurochemical processes in the brain which become exhausted and lower the signal-to-noise ratio I discussed yesterday. Once the signal-to-noise ratio gets low enough, it becomes impossible to discern what information is relevant from what information is irrelevant and makes it literally impossible to learn.
So in conclusion, make sure you aren't teaching your students they are helpless in the classroom. This makes them both passive and incapable of learning. It also produces anxiety and fear and many other negative psychological states, but I ignored those for now. The classroom should be about learning, and defeating that purpose by showing students they have no control over the environment means they might as well not even come.