Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.10.16Further Notes on Precise Praise: Ensuring Positive Reinforcement Feels Genuine

One of the techniques I’ve found myself thinking a lot about lately is Precise Praise. I think, honestly, it’s easy to underestimate. What could be simpler than telling someone “good job”? We know that critical feedback can be tricky, but we tend to assume that good news is easy to deliver. Over time, though, I’ve come to see how tricky it can be to get Precise Praise right. I’ve written about it several times lately to update what I write about it in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 in my blog.

Now I find myself wanting to write again…to fix a few things I think I originally got wrong (especially in the now out-of-print 1.0 version) and maybe fill in some gaps.

I’ve been thinking particularly about the importance of keeping praise genuine. Positive reinforcement can be one of a teacher’s best tools for building relationships and fostering student achievement, but only if it feels real to the recipients. Unfortunately, it’s easy for it NOT to feel real. And if it doesn’t, it can seem disingenuous, calculating, or fake. This can have a perverse effect (more on that here). And of course, most people don’t know when they seem disingenuous to others. I once worked with an administrator who seemed false, calculating, and her words often had the opposite effect from what she’d hoped. And she never knew it!

So here are some further thoughts on keeping your positive reinforcement genuine, and at least one correction of something I got wrong in the 1.0 version of TLaC.

First, the correction. On page 212, I wrote that it was wise to “praise (and acknowledge) loud; fix soft.” Some of this is right. You definitely want to keep corrective or constructive feedback private in many cases. And there are cases where it’s great to praise loudly: it can make a child feel really special; it can show other students what to do to be successful.  But it’s more complex than, “good news…is good news; make it as public as possible,” as I wrote then.

If you want other students to replicate a peer’s actions, loud praise can be beneficial but this, it is important to recognize, is a different goal from communicating to that child that you are proud of him, appreciate her, etc. In other words, it is less specifically and genuinely about them. Over-relying on loud praise to influence other students can make you seem disingenuous.

Let’s say for example that a teacher sees Charles really giving his all to a revision activity, going above and beyond. She could say, “Charles really gave his all to his revision. He rooted out those passive verbs and made them active. His composition practically sings when I read it!” Although that’s high praise for Charles, it is also an example of a teacher talking about a student (to others), which is different from talking right to Charles and saying “Charles, you really gave your all to this revision. You rooted out those passive verbs and made them all active instead. Your composition practically sings when I read it!”

The first one is at least in part about helping others see and replicate what Charles did. The second example speaks directly to Charles. It is only about him, which makes it more genuine.  There’s room for both of course. Sometimes it speaks very powerfully to Charles to call his excellence to attention publicly. And it is worth seeking to have students replicate one another’s best actions. But the only way that can work if is if we balance it with praise that involves talking right to them—and only them. If praise is always third-person, it can easily seem calculating.

So the “about Charles” has to be balanced with the “to Charles” and when we do that we make both seem more genuine. If the shouting out his work from the mountaintop is vaguely unexpected, he will remember it and feel honored. If it is mundane and rote, it will not do much.

Thinking about this made me recall a clip I saw more than ten years ago. As a young man walked by Darryl Williams, he leaned down and whispered.  “You’re really impressing me with your effort today.  Keep it up.”  You could see how this student responded–in his shoulders, his eyes. There was something so powerful in the whisper. It illustrated how quieter praise is more private, and therefore only for the recipient. And that is the soul of genuine.

So if I wanted to ensure that my praise was genuine I would make sure to talk to kids at least as much as I talk about them (note: older students often don’t respond to third-person praise as much as younger ones).

It also struck me that a useful approach that could blend some of these benefits: anonymous public praise. As in, “I saw almost everyone clean up diligently after the activity. Thank you. But I also want to say that I saw a few of you pick up not only your own materials but those of your classmates. Without being asked and without looking for credit. I want you to know that how much I appreciate that.”  Ideally I can make this very genuine in that I am talking to people, but publicly and also suggesting that everyone ask whether the teacher was talking to me.

Anyway, this all falls generally under the guidance I gave in TLaC 2.0—to modulate and vary your delivery.  I think this line was generally correct: “You capture the greatest benefit by delivering positive reinforcement using an unpredictable variety of settings and volumes.”  But it wasn’t specific enough about ways you could vary setting and volume and why you might choose them. Hopefully this post fills in some gaps.

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