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The Power of Yet

When I was teaching in the Elementary Division, I would work with my students each day to “retrain their brain.” I would get the students to call out thoughts that represent a fixed mindset. They found this easy and I’d hear statements such as “I can’t do it,”  “I’m not good at that,” “I’m not great at this,” and “I give up.” I would have them call out statements to retrain their brain to think differently, like “I can’t do it yet,”  “I can get better at that,” “I’m on the right track,” “my brain is growing.” This routine helped the students understand the power of “yet” — that when we struggle and feel challenged, we’re actually getting smarter and should feel positive about these moments.

One of the biggest obstacles to learning I’ve seen students face is their mindset. Once students get into an “I can’t” mindset it becomes a real challenge to help them change or reframe their thinking.  Reframing the language we use in the classroom and at home can take our students from the negative to the positive, and help them break through barriers that seem insurmountable at first. 

Let’s call this moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and embracing “the power of yet.”

Last year, our Primary Division Vice Principal shared insights into the idea of a growth mindset in her informative blog post. The fundamental idea of a growth mindset is that persisting in the face of a new challenge leads us to improve our cognitive functioning.  Said differently, a growth mindset is a way of seeing yourself as a learner, who is is okay with “not knowing,” excited by challenges, able to learn from failure, and eager to invest in the process over the product.  

As educators and parents, we have a great opportunity to frame learning as a process that, by its very nature, will involve trial and error. We can put less emphasis on “getting it right” and more emphasis on sticking with the work when it feels hard. We can focus praise on demonstrating resilience and provide positive reinforcement for identifying and deploying a range of strategies that ultimately lead to success.  

In other words, at school and at home, we should be modelling and supporting a growth mindset. Below are some of the methods we use to  do this in our classrooms:

We Make the Work Challenging 

We work hard to make the work hard. Make sense? As educators, we wrestle with what makes for a healthy degree of challenge in our lessons. We turn to inquiry-based learning and collaborative learning as framing pedagogies that, by definition, pose challenges where there is no single answer. With individualized lessons to meet a wide range of needs, the students are required to work as independent thinkers at times; at others, we may up the ante by challenging students to work collaboratively. At the same time, we give students the language they need to express their level of comfort or discomfort with the learning task. 

We Make Space for Failure

When I saw the Grade 3 students building an aquaponics system in our new STEM Learning Commons, I was struck by how much energy they put into the process — there was a lot of intense drilling, gluing, painting, cutting — including much frustration with this complex project. The teacher was there to guide and to support, but not to provide answers, keeping them on track through trial and error. The project was purposefully challenging and the true learning goal was to help the students build the patience and fortitude in achieving  their goal. 

At Bialik, it’s a priority to build classroom communities where students feel comfortable making mistakes. Teachers highlight that trial-and-error, the scientific method, the creative process, and even playing in the schoolyard  are ways of learning that require us to try, fail, learn, and try again. Students have time to reflect on where the errors occurred and work on different strategies that might lead to success. 

Teaching the Power of Yet

This is more than the story of The Little Engine That Could — it is not simply “I think I can;” it is “I know I can.” At school, we emphasize that learning is a process. Progress towards a goal is evidence that success is near.  When, as a Bialik parent, you come to Portfolio Night, you’ll see some work that is not totally complete, but highlights this commitment to “yet.”  Our students are building on their success to date — that is to say, “not yet” inspires them to new heights.

Modeling Good Attitudes

Everywhere you turn at Bialik, you get a “can-do” message, and teachers use this ethos to power up the potential for learning.  

Key to successful learning is emotional intelligence and in a Jewish day school, values like Menschlechkeit, are front and centre. We frame our character building — known as SAGE — around Social and Self Awareness, Grit and Empathy. These themes permeate our classrooms; they are actualized through role play activities and scenario discussions, community Shabbat sharing circles and class meetings.  You’ll also see students leading committees that promote positive thinking and engaging in Tikun Olam social action projects to help others.

Activities at Home

As parents, you can do many things at home that will help your child to cultivate a growth mindset. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your children to describe “how” they learned, not only “what” they learned each day.  
  • Let them share their feelings of both pride and frustration.  
  • Don’t rush to solve their problems (and please, never do their homework).
  • Encourage them to be playful learners and remind them that being “stuck” is the first step toward becoming “unstuck.”  
  • Share stories of times when you have failed, learned, tried things differently, and succeeded.  

And of course, don’t hesitate to share your insights into with our teachers and administrators. We want to be your partners in supporting growth mindset at home.  

David Cohen

Vice Principal, Elementary Division