Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

02.17.23What Is Positive Framing: An Excerpt from TLAC 3.0

Ditch the Sandwich


My friend Ravi Gupta recently interviewed me on the Sweat the Technique podcast and one of the techniques he asked about most was Positive Framing–Technique 59 in TLAC 3.0.  His questions made me realize how critical this technique was- how frequently it is at the center of efforts to build vibrant and successful culture, in the classroom and just about everywhere else. So with thanks to Ravi for reminding me, here are some highlights from the discussions of Positive Framing as discussed in the book.

Positivity inspires and motivates and that should influence the way we teach. But positivity, particularly in learning settings, is often misunderstood.

One flaw is the assumption that praise is the same thing as positivity. Praise is telling someone they have done something well. Positivity (in this case) is the delivery of information students need in a manner that motivates, inspires, and communicates our belief in their capacity. This is important because teachers are often told to use a “praise sandwich” or to praise five times as often as they criticize. But telling someone they’re doing great several times so that you can then say And you have to line up your decimals consistently is problematic.

Believing that you must wrap criticism with praise assumes that students are fragile and can’t take constructive feedback—that criticism is something a teacher has to trick them into hearing. Most students want to understand how to get better and come to trust adults who tell them the truth when they also know that those adults believe in them.

Inaccurate or unwarranted praise “is unlikely to stand for long in the face of contrary experience,” writes Peps Mccrea. “Promises of success that don’t eventually materialize will only serve to undermine motivation and erode trust.”

We all know the teacher who’s inclined to describe every idea, every answer, every action as “awesome.” Soon enough that word and his praise more generally become less meaningful. When everything is awesome, nothing is.

Which isn’t to say praise isn’t profoundly important and motivating. It is. But that’s all the more reason to preserve its value.

So the key is often not to praise more. Rather, aspire to give a range of useful and honest feedback and guidance that includes both praise and critical or corrective feedback, but do so positively, in a manner that motivates, inspires, and communicates our belief in our students’ capacity.

Using Positive Framing allows you to give all kinds of feedback, as required by the situation, while keeping culture strong and students motivated. Doubly so for redirections—moments when we say to a student, “Do that differently.” If those moments remind the person you’re talking to that you want them to be successful and that you believe in and trust their intentions, students will trust you more and be motivated to follow your guidance.

Here are six rules of thumb to follow.

Assume the Best

One of the most pervasive tendencies in human psychology is the Fundamental Attribution Error—the idea that, when in doubt, we tend to attribute another person’s actions to their character or personality rather than to the situation. We often assume intentionality behind a mistake.

You can hear this in classrooms where a teacher’s words imply that a student did something wrong deliberately when in fact there is little ground to assume that.

“Why won’t you use the feedback I gave you on your first draft?” or “Just a minute, class; some people seem to think they don’t have to push in their chairs when we line up.” Such statements attribute ill intention to what could be the result of distraction, lack of practice, or genuine misunderstanding. What if the student had tried to incorporate your feedback, or just plain forgot about the chair? How might hearing statements like these make a confused or flustered student feel? Unless you have clear evidence that a behavior was intentional, it’s better to assume that your students have tried (and will try) to do as you’ve asked.

One of the most useful words for assuming the best is forgot, as in, “Just a minute; a couple of us seem to have forgotten to push in their chairs. Let’s try that again.” Given the benefit of the doubt, your scholars can focus their energy on doing the task right instead of feeling defensive.

Further, this approach shows your students that you assume they want to do well and believe they can—it’s just a matter of nailing down some details.

Confused is another good assume-the-best word, as in, “Just a minute; some people appear to be confused about the directions, so let me give them again.” Another approach is to assume that the error is your own: “Just a minute, class; I must not have been clear: I want you to find every verb in the paragraph working silently on your own. Do that now.” This last one is especially useful. It draws students’ attention more directly to your belief that only your own lack of clarity would mean lack of instant follow-through by your focused and diligent charges. And, of course, it also forces you to contemplate that, in fact, you may not have been all that clear.

Assuming the best might give credit for a good idea and then offer the correction: “I like that you’re looking to reduce. But we can’t do that here.” Or “I love to see you trying to use those transition words but there are so many they’ve gotten a bit confusing.” Looking for the good intention behind the mistake, looking to assume the best, has the additional benefit of causing you to think about all the good reasons why students might have done something that at first looks egregious. Assuming well-intentioned errors can help you to see more of the positivity that already exists.

It’s important to remember that you, too, participate in setting the norms of your classroom by describing what you expect. Assuming the best reinforces positive norms (and expresses a quiet confidence). It suggests that you struggle to imagine a universe in which students would not be productive, considerate, and scholarly because of your faith both in them and in the culture of your own classroom. You implicitly describe the norm you believe to be there—everyone making a good faith effort. If by contrast you were to assume the worst, you would be suggesting that sloppiness, inconsiderateness, and whatever else were what you yourself expected in your classroom.

Of course, you’ll want to be careful not to overuse the assume-the-best approach. If a student is clearly struggling—refusing to follow a clearly delivered instruction and is signaling to you that they are in an agitated, emotional state—don’t pretend. In such cases, addressing the behavior directly with something more substantive, such as a private individual correction, also helps to get the student back into a productive mode without the attention of the rest of the class.

Even in the most challenging cases, however—say a student has done something really negative like stealing or belittling a classmate—be careful to let your words judge a specific behavior (“That was dishonest”) rather than a person (“You are dishonest”). Perhaps even say, “That was dishonest, but I know that’s not who you are.” A person is always more and better than the moments in which he or she errs, and our language choices give us the opportunity to show in those moments that we still see the best in the people around us.

Live in the Now

In most cases—during class and while your lesson is underway, for example—avoid talking about what went wrong and what students can no longer fix. Talk about what should happen next. Describing what’s no longer within your control is negative and demotivating. There’s a time and place for processing what went wrong, but the right time is not when your lesson hangs in the balance or when action is required.

When you have to give constructive feedback, start by giving instructions that describe as specifically as possible the next move on the path to success (see technique 52, What to Do).

If David is whispering to his neighbor instead of taking notes, say, “I need to see you taking notes, David,” or, better, because it is more specific, “I should see your pencil moving,” rather than, “Stop talking, David,” or “I’ve told you before to take notes, David.”

Again, the clearer you can be about the next step, the better. As Chip and Dan Heath point out in Switch, “what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” So provide clarity without judgment. If you deliver the directions in a neutral tone, with no frustration evident in your voice, you may be surprised by how helpful it is. Most students want to succeed; by providing them with a clear next step you are helping both of you to get closer to your shared goal.

One challenge here is that we often are too vague in our instructions. When in doubt, shrink the change—a phrase that also comes from the Heath brothers. “One way to motivate action, then, is to make people feel as though they’re already closer to the finish line than they might have thought.” Name a small first step that feels doable. So, “Please start taking notes, David,” becomes “Pencil in hand, please.” It’s much easier for a potentially reluctant or confused student to engage in a task that is bite-size than one that might feel more overwhelming.

For what it’s worth, this is part of the coaching philosophy of the famously positive and successful football coach Pete Carroll, one of the game’s best motivators. “We’re really disciplined as coaches to always talk about what we want to see,” he says of his entire coaching staff’s approach. They always strive to focus on “the desired outcome, not about what went wrong or what the mistake was. We have to be disciplined and always use our language to talk about the next thing you can do right. It’s always about what we want to happen, not about the other stuff.”2

Allow Plausible Anonymity

You can often allow students the opportunity to strive to reach your expectations in plausible anonymity as long as they are making a good-faith effort. This would mean, as I discuss in Chapter Eleven, beginning by correcting them without using their names when possible. If a few students are not yet completely ready to move on with the activities of the class, consider making your first correction something like “Check yourself to make sure you’ve followed the directions.” In most cases, this will yield results faster than calling out individual students by name. It doesn’t feel good to hear your teacher say, “Evan, put down the pencil,” if you knew you were about to do just that. Saying to your class, “Wait a minute, Morehouse (or “Tigers” or “fifth grade” or just “guys”), I hear a few voices still talking. I need to see you quiet and ready to go!” is better than lecturing the talkers in front of the class. This plausible anonymity is another way of communicating to students that you believe the best about their intentions and are certain they are just seconds away from being fully ready to move forward with the tasks necessary to learn.

Narrate the Positive

Compare the statements two teachers recently made in their respective classrooms:

Teacher 1: (pausing after giving a direction) Monique and Emily are there. I see rows three and four are fully prepared. Just need three people. Thank you for fixing that, David. Ah, now we’re there, so let’s get started.

Teacher 2: (same setting) I need two people paying attention at this table. Some people don’t appear to be listening. This table also has some students who are not paying attention to my directions. I’ll wait, gentlemen, and if I have to give consequences, I will.

In the first teacher’s classroom, things appear to be moving in the right direction because the teacher narrates the evidence of student follow-through, of students doing as they’re asked, of things getting done. He calls his students’ attention to this fact, thereby normalizing it. He doesn’t praise when students do what he asks, but merely acknowledges or describes. He wants them to know he sees it, but he also doesn’t want to confuse doing what’s expected with doing “great.” If I am sitting in this classroom and seek, as most students do, to be normal, I now sense the normality of positive, on-task behavior and will likely choose to do the same.

The second teacher is telling a different story. Things are going poorly and getting worse. He’s doing his best to call our attention to the normality of his being ignored and the fact that this generally occurs without consequence. The second teacher is helping students to see negative norms as they develop and, in broadcasting his anxieties, making them even more visible and prominent as well. In a sense he’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: he narrates negative behavior into being.

“To modify motivation,” writes Peps Mccrea, “change what … pupils see.” If teachers make “desirable norms”(people doing positive things) more visible to students they will be more likely to join with them. Mccrea calls this “elevating visibility.” To elevate visibility of a norm you want more people to follow, increase their “profusion”—the proportion of students who appear to follow them—and their “prominence”—how much you notice when people do it.

The first teacher is helping students to see more readily how profuse positive and constructive behavior is, and he is making it more prominent to students by letting them know that he sees and that it matters.

Narrating the positive, though useful, is also extremely vulnerable to misapplication, so here are a couple of key rules:

Use Narrate the Positive as a tool to motivate group behavior as students are deciding whether to work to meet expectations, not as a way to correct individual students after they clearly have not met expectations.

If you narrate positive on-task behavior during a countdown you are describing behavior that has exceeded expectations. You gave students ten seconds to get their binders out and be ready to take notes, but Jabari is ready at five seconds. It’s fine to call that out. It’s very different to call out Jabari for having his binder out after your countdown has ended. At that point it might seem as though you are using Jabari’s readiness to plead with others who have not followed through in the time you allotted.

Another common misapplication would be this: You’re ready to discuss Tuck Everlasting, but Susan is off task, giggling and trying to get Martina’s attention. You would not be using positive framing or narrating the positive effectively if you circum-narrated a “praise circle” around Susan: “I see Danni is ready to go. And Elisa. Alexis has her book out.” In this case, I recommend that you address Susan directly but positively: “Susan, show me your best, with your notebook out. We’ve got lots to do.” If you use the praise circle, students will be pretty aware of what you’re doing and are likely to see your positive reinforcement as contrived and disingenuous. And they’re likely to think you’re afraid to just address Susan. In fact, Susan may think that as well. By directly reminding Susan what is expected—and why—you have helped her get ready to engage with the learning and maintained the norm of readiness that is shared by the class.


Students love to be challenged, to prove they can do things, to compete, to win. So challenge them: exhort them to prove what they can do by building competition into the day. Students can be challenged as individuals or, usually better, as groups.

Here are some examples to get you started. I’m sure you’ll find it fun to think of more:

  • “You guys have been doing a great job this week. Let’s see if you can take it up a notch.”
  • “I love the work I’m seeing. I wonder what happens when we add in another factor.”
  • “Let’s see if we can write for ten minutes straight without stopping. Ready?!”
  • “Ms. Austin said she didn’t think you guys could knock out your math tables faster than her class. Let’s show ’em what we’ve got.”

Talk Expectations and Aspirations

When you ask students to do something differently or better, you are helping them become the people they wish to be or to achieve enough to have their choice of dreams. You can use the moments where you ask for better work to remind them of this. When you ask your students to revise their thesis paragraphs, tell them you want them to write as though “you’re in college already” or that “with one more draft, you’ll be on your way to college.” If your students are fourth graders, ask them to try to look as sharp as the fifth graders. Or tell them you want to do one more draft of their work and have them “really use the words of a scientist [or historian, and so on] this time around.” Tell them you want them to listen to each other like Supreme Court Justices. Although it’s nice that you’re proud of them (and it’s certainly wonderful to tell them that), the goal in the end is not for them to please you but for them to leave you behind on a long journey toward a more distant and more important goal. It’s useful if your framing connects them to that goal.


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