Start with “Yes”

If you’re reading with me daily (and if you are, I love you!), I hope I’ve convinced you to watch or listen to Dan Finkel’s Ted Talk: “Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching.” It has given me so much to think about.

I’m struck by how much his fourth principle: “Say Yes to student ideas” resonates with my experience.

As a small business owner, I’ve had the blessing of bringing my kids along with me to work basically since the day they were born (for more on that check out this post from awhile back). When my first daughter was born, I would typically wear her in a baby carrier while teaching/co-teaching during most of our classes and take a few breaks to breastfeed and give my back a break. Our office in our taekwondo studio was partitioned off in the back of our space, so I could have privacy but also hear what was going on in class. This is a long way to say, I’ve listened to a lot of the classes taught at my academy while breast feeding my babies.

“Starting with yes” reminds me of a class I listened to when my older daughter was still just a few months old. At the time, we had a wonderful person helping us in our classes. He’d retired to Florida and decided to take up Martial Arts with his newly found free time. It was obvious that my husband and I needed help, and he volunteered to help us out in class a few days a week to make our life a little more manageable. I could just stop there because maybe all you need to know about the world is that people like this exist, and they are real gifts to the us all.

One of the things I really appreciated about this person was that not only was he willing to help, but he was also willing to accept feedback about how to be more helpful. (Again, can you believe that there are people like this in the world? It is so easy as a volunteer to say, “Look, I’m helping you for free, I’ll help however I please.”)

That day, I was listening to him work with a group of students on a basic form. It sounded something like this:

“Okay, show me how you’re doing. No, you need to aim towards the center when you punch. No, you need to bend your knee before you kick. No, it’s a front stance there.”

All of the feedback he was giving his students was good feedback that they needed to hear. But, hearing every correction start with the word “no” stuck out to me like a sore thumb. One of the things I have noticed in my life is that when I hear the word “No” I tend to think I’m doing something wrong. The students in this group were beginners. They weren’t doing anything wrong; they just hadn’t learned yet.

So, my suggestion to him (and to all of us) is to give the exact same feedback, only start with “Yes!”

YES! I love how strong you punch is, now aim towards the center so it’s even stronger!

Yes! That kick was so high! Now let’s bend your knee to get the power in the right direction.

Yes! I love how strong that block was, let’s do it again in a front stance.

I hear you out there saying, “this is the problem with kids today, they can’t take any criticism.” That may be true, but I own a business where people pay money for themselves or their kids to hit things (and sometimes get hit by other kids), and I can assure you that even though people ARE willing to pay to punch and kick other people who can kick and punch them, people are not willing to pay ANY money at all to feel bad about themselves (and frankly, I don’t blame them, they could feel bad about themselves at home for free).

Setting that aside, I want to kindly suggest that when we hear “No.” Our brains assume that everything about what we just did was wrong, that we’re kind of failing, and maybe we’re not very good at this after all. Which is not true. No one starts out doing anything particularly well – even J.K. Rowling. Sure Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a magnificent debut novel, but it wasn’t the first time she sat down to write something. AND, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was this totally other level of wonderful writing. She got better as she wrote more books. People improve with practice, time and effort. We just have to stay with it (whatever *it* is for you) long enough to get to get good at it.

Starting your feedback with “yes” affirms that some of what you did was in fact good. Just as the math student who posits “2+2 = 12” in Dan Finkel’s Ted Talk can learn some interesting ideas about math, counting, and our number system when we say “Yes” to the possibility rather than closing down their thinking by saying “No, that’s wrong.” We can get our kids, our students, and ourselves to try harder and longer when we start with Yes. Yes, I see you trying. Yes, there’s a lot of good things in this draft that we can work with. Yes, let’s see what new and interesting conclusions that idea leads us to.



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