The Power of Yet

Post by Glenn Whitman

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One word. Three letters. It is my favorite word to say to doubting students as well as skeptical teachers. Do you have a word in mind?

In this post, I am going to try to make the case for why this one word is arguably the most important word for every teacher, school leader and student to meet her or his peak potential as a learner and as an individual during this school year.

This word became central to my interactions with my students as well as my colleagues after reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset. There are few researchers whose work has been more impactful than Dr. Dweck’s. It is hard to go to a conference related to Mind, Brain, and Education Science (Neuroscience) that does not reference her work. Moreover, Dr. Dweck’s work is also often paired with that of 10,000 hour rule made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers who draws on the research of Dr. Anders Ericcson.

I first came across this word as an aspiring NHL ice hockey player when my mother would respond to my saying, “I can’t improve my slapshot” by using this word and then sending me outside to practice more. She did the same thing when I once proclaimed, “I can’t juggle a soccer ball a 100 times.” In each case, my “can’t” was responded to by her “yet.”

Now what I hope one thing this blog post does is begin a movement, or better yet, to create a “yet sensibility” among teachers, students, and school leaders for the coming school year.

As a history teacher, I imagine many historical moments when “yet” changed the course of the past. I can picture in my mind, and almost hear President Lincoln respond to one of his cabinet members after he declared, “You can’t free the slaves,” with President Lincoln declaring, “yet.” I was reminded of the “yet sensibility” as I read through one of my student’s oral history projects last year in which she interviewed a Rosie the Riveter from World War II. At some point, the interviewee must have responded to an individual who declared, “A woman cannot do the work of a man who is off fighting in Europe and Japan” with the word, “yet”.

But getting to a “yet sensibility” is not easy. It is much quicker to declare you “can’t” do something and then give up. Getting to yet begins after what I hope for each of us is a good nights sleep (8-9 hours) as we roll out of bed to face the opportunities and challenges of each new day. Imagine beginning each day like this young girl named Jessica.

What is stopping each of us from beginning our day like Jessica? It does not take standing on your sink to develop a “yet sensibility” but it does take work. And what research says is not rocket science, rather it reminds us that if we want to achieve more as a student, improve the quality of our teaching, or abilities as school leaders, it takes practice. But not just any type of practice.

Over the years, neuroscientists have explored the question of what made individuals like Beethoven great? What research shows is that individuals who are the elite in their careers get there because of deep and deliberate practice that is defined as: “Working on technique, seeking critical feedback, and focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses.” Moreover, those elite artists and innovators average about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for “cognitively demanding activities that need significant thoughts.”

While I do not expect my students to put 10,000 hours into studying for their assessments in order to become “elite” historians, I do know that each of them has the ability to prepare smarter using Mind, Brain, and Education Science strategies like self-testing and self-reflection while avoiding switching between tasks to check what is happening on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or the next best piece of social media.

In addition to practice, it also takes challenge. What do you think students will remember from each of the classes they take this year? How would they do if final exams were actually given at the start of this school year, but that assessd what they learned the previous year?

If I was to ask any senior at St. Andrew’s who they interviewed for their American Century Oral History Project last year, there is a strong likelihood that they would recall his or her name. But if we asked those same seniors to discuss in detail President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which I know I teach well, it is less likely that they would recall much from this landmark program. But why? Research shows that when you are challenged, especially by something that interests you, than your intrinsic motivation increases and that the knowledge and skills are more likely to be imbedded in your long-term memory.

Challenge is not limited to the classroom. Challenge is identifying those problems or people in our community or the world that need help. It is in serving the greater good that I have so often seen in my teaching career a “yet sensibility” emerge among students and adults. It is why schools like mine take on the challenge each week to make meals through Campus Kitchen or fund wells in Haiti. When others choose to say they can’t or won’t help those in need, does your school community respond differently, with a resounding “YET!”

Late last year, a colleague in the English Department, recommended Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. In this book, Gladwell talks about “deliberate difficulty” and he begins with one of the greatest upsets in history. When I think of David slaying Goliath I am brought back to, what was for me, the greatest sporting event in my lifetime.

In 1980, the United States and the Soviet Union were pitted together in an ideological struggle called the Cold War that happened to be fought on my fronts, including through sports. Just prior to the Lake Placid winter Olympic Games, the Soviet professional ice hockey team, without question the best in the world, defeated the United States team, made up of college players, 10-3 in Madison Square Garden in New York. Thirteen days later, the two teams squared off again in the semi-final game of the Olympics. And the United States team won 4-3 prompting sportscaster Al Michaels to pose the question, “Do you believe in miracles?” While I am not sure my stance on miracles, I do believe in “yet.” Someone was going to beat the Russians and with a “yet sensibility” those American college students did.

Getting to yet also requires earned trust. Teachers, coaches, and advisors strive to have each of their students meet their peak potential as learners and as individuals. Throughout a student’s academic journey, teachers are professionally obligated to help students not only meet their potential but to also see how far they can push students beyond that potential. But rather than try to find words to express what this looks like I thought I would let this video clip do the talking for me.

So imagine what each of us–teachers, students, and school leaders–could do as individuals, for the people we love, and the world we live in if we give our very best, if we practice smarter, embrace challenge, trust in our teachers, colleagues, mentors, and parents and replace “can’t” with a deafening “yet”!

Have a great school year.

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