Beyond “Not Yet” to “What’s Next?”

A quick survey of social media suggests that a key element of nurturing a Growth Mindset is the word “yet”.

In her renowned TED talk, “The Power of Yet”, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck espouses the virtue of “yet”, describing a school with a grading system that includes a category for “not yet” instead of a fail:

“If you get a failing grade, you think, ‘I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.’ But if you get the grade ‘not yet’, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”

Social media jumped on this idea. Many translated Dweck’s words to mean that we simply need to add the word “yet” to every negative statement students make about themselves.

It’s become an appending catchcry:

I don’t get it … yet.

I can’t do it … yet.

This doesn’t work … yet.

It doesn’t make sense… yet.

I’m not good at this … yet.

Even Sesame Street jumped on the “Power of Yet” bandwagon:

For me, there are two big problems with this fixation with the word “yet”:

  1. It over simplifies things.
    Saying “not yet” isn’t enough. Without taking the right action, “I can’t do it yet” becomes “I still can’t do it yet.”
  1. It is always associated with the negative.
    It’s about what you can’t, what you aren’t or what you don’t do

Let’s look at the first problem and the key message Dweck was trying to convey.

The research Dweck often refers to when she talks about “yet” goes along these lines:

A group of low-achieving students is identified. The students’ self-talk is focused on the things they aren’t, can’t or wouldn’t be able to do.

Dweck intervenes to tell these students that it’s not that they can’t do something, it’s just that they haven’t learnt how to yet. She proceeds to guide the students’ learning, and they make spectacular improvements.

By highlighting the word “yet”, the focus shifts from what the students are to what they are becoming. It helps them to be less concerned with “the now” and more concerned with what they must do to improve. Essentially, Dweck wants students to take action to change themselves.

The problem is when we focus on the “yet” and overlook that critical next step: action. Students must act to achieve growth. The power of yet is not what leads to improvement. It’s the power of yet combined with effective effort.

Now, let’s consider the second problem with “yet”: the fact that it’s almost always associated with a negative statement. It’s about what you’re not yet. It engages in what’s called a “deficit discourse”. Try sitting down with a five-year-old and talk about all the things they can’t do yet. I don’t imagine it would be a terribly inspiring conversation!

More importantly, high achievers – those who are steeped in the idea of growth and have a highly-developed Growth Mindset – tend not to talk about “not yet”. Instead, they focus on the positive – what they are going to be next.

The “Power of Yet” isn’t to be dismissed. As Dweck points out, the Growth Mindset and the word “yet” give students a path into the future.

However, I think we can do better than “not yet”. The more positive alternative is, “what’s next?”

When we focus on what we are going to be next instead of what we aren’t yet, we more clearly carve out Dweck’s “path into the future”.

“What’s next?” makes our classroom dialogue positive. It emphasises the skills, ideas and competencies that students will master next. It carries the positive presupposition that there are things the students have already mastered. It assumes they have already experienced growth, and that this next “thing” is something they are also capable of mastering.

Try it for yourself. Think of something you’re trying to master. Tell yourself that it is something you can’t do … yet. Then try telling yourself that it is the next thing you will master. Which do you find more positive and motivating?

What’s more, “what’s next?” is inherently forward looking. This means it’s more focused on action. “Not yet” is a statement of fact; “what’s next?” is a question that prompts students to take the necessary steps to achieve growth. It is a statement about the future.

When Dweck coined the phrase “not yet” to encourage a Growth Mindset, she was advocating the need to show students a pathway to future learning. But when it comes to positive reinforcement and encouraging students to act, “what’s next?” is the more powerful alternative.

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