The Most Powerful Word In Education

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What’s the most powerful word you can use in the classroom?

We have to choose our words very carefully but most of the time they just spill out spontaneously “without thinking”. But words can make or break a mindset so what we say matters.

We all know that the three most powerful words are “I forgive you” or ” I love you”. No dispute. According to Peter Greene (2018), the seven most powerful words in education are “What can I do to help you?” He might be right. Damian Hinds could certainly say them to every teacher he meets.

But from a pupil point of view are these powerful words or are they just a bit weak and willing. We could say “How can we work on this together?” if we are adopting a teamwork mindset or how about “What can YOU do to help you?” if we are want self-sufficient and independent learners. The seven words are important but I think there is one word in education that has huge power and it is the strongest word in learning. Can you work out what it is?

Passion, resilience, success, failure, creativity, metacognition, extraordinary, outstanding, effort?

No. And it’s not ‘no’ either although that’s a contender.

How about inclusion, barrier, struggle, challenge, collaborate, curiosity, resourcefulness, imagination, knowledge, freedom?


Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

It must be “education” then?


Need a clue? Okay, it’s got three letters.

Another clue? It’s connected to ‘growth mindset‘.

If it’s driving you dotty then you could ask Alexa.

Are We There Yet?


I don’t know… YET

I don’t understand… YET

I don’t get it… YET

I can’t do it… YET

I can’t work it out… YET.

I’m not a millionaire…YET.

Saying “I don’t know” is a sign of confidence in a classroom that promotes mistake-making but saying “I don’t know… yet” demonstrates that you will get there one day. It’s positive and it’s full of aspiration and it recognises that learning isn’t instant but takes time.

Uttering ‘yet’ acknowledges that we are on our way and we aren’t sure when that will be but we’ll get there so keep watching. ‘Yet’ says to the person saying it and to the world at large that there is no giving up and I’m going to keep on trying. I might get there tomorrow, next week, next year or when I’m 45 years old but get there I will. It’s a word with in-built faith and ambition clothed in resilience.

You ain’t seen nothing… yet

Yet acknowledges that learning is tense and frustrating. It says that we experience learning stress and stress is a fact of life but that doesn’t mean we let it become a way of life. It tells us that there is no shame in asking for help when we need it and if we don’t understand something then we get busy asking.

By saying yet we learn to embrace challenges rather than avoid them and see obstacles as opportunities to learn. Even if we can’t overcome the challenge, we still grow as a person and that’s what a class of yetis is all about.

A Yeti classroom says “success comes in cans, failure comes in can’ts”. Positive yeti learners know that I can’t + oo = can too. They also know not to take shortcuts or blame others if things don’t work out but take  responsibility for their own progress. Good teachers say ‘yet’ all the time.

Carol Dweck’s video is well worth watching in which she explores the tyranny of ‘now’ and the power of ‘yet’. She says ‘not yet‘ but I prefer sticking to ‘yet’ as this is more positive.

The best is yet to come

Yeti learners are kind to themselves and have self-respect. They don’t talk themselves down but, without ego, talk themselves up. They know that self-compassion is a key component of success.

The words we use are like thunder. Some teachers ban the word ‘only’ in their classes when it comes to placing a value on their actions. To say “I only got 43%”, “I only came fifth” or “I’m only in the B team” makes you sound ‘less than’, not worthy, second best, etc. It’s a bit like hearing “I’m just a teacher” or “I’m just a cleaner”. By saying “only” and “just” limits our sense of self-worth and that has to stop to restore dignity in who we are and what we do and achieve.

Yet… the word is slowly spreading. Let’s promote it in the language of learning and remember we all need to be yetis and appreciate the power of yet and appreciate, as Carol Dweck says, we are on a learning curve as it gives us a path into the future. We do of course need to be aware of the misconceptions associated with growth mindset too.

Children and adults need to know they can improve so are we there yet? No we aren’t… yet. But we will get there when we realise that yet is actually a super power. Attitudes determine altitude and that’s where the Yetis live.

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