TECHNIQUE #59: Precise Praise
Precise Praise, in a nutshell is a teacher’s ability to deliver mindful positive feedback. “Make your positive reinforcement strategic. Differentiate between acknowledgement and praise. Processing the dichotomy between exceeding the standard and meeting the standard is a critical mind shift when metering out praise. Precise Praise also emphasizes the difference between affirming actions and not traits. In my personal life I’m a big fan of ‘There’s no such thing as too much affection’; professionally, I admire a methodology that awards commendations critically, or rather, when they are truly earned. In actual practice, I do tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and depending on the age or ability level of some students, I know that I tend to hand out compliments more often than I should. There is a fine line between holding back praise intentionally; rendering your congratulations rare, desperately sought after, a too valuable commodity seems harsh or professionally cold. All human beings seek praise; the psychology behind verbal rewards certainly affects behavior. To wield your accolades wisely, as Precise Praise recommends, can become a strong instrument towards shaping the quality of student work and behavior.
Precise Praise differs from Positive Framing, in that instead of issuing positive corrective content, the teacher is managing positive feedback. There are three deterrents to successful Positive Praise: Sarcasm, Disingenuous/Empty comments, and Overuse. I struggle to avoid using sarcasm in the classroom; not as a means to be verbally cruel towards students, rather, I happen to think that sarcasm is terribly funny. Below are the four fundamentals toward implementing Precise Praise:
Reinforce Actions, Not Traits: When the teacher deems something praiseworthy, they should use language that celebrates the task at hand, not framing the student characteristics. For example: Resist: “Melanie, you are such an intelligent student” rather, “Melanie, this writing demonstrates excellent use of adverbial clauses”. The key is to impart: “Smart isn’t what you are, it’s what you do.”, (p.434)¹. Another example: Avoid: “John, you are so clever!”, rather say, “John, do you see those cross-outs and rewrites; that’s why your final draft is so strong”.
Offer Objective-Aligned Praise: Many students are very capable of being productive and diligent produce work that fulfills a task or assignment. What specific skill, however, are you looking for your students to demonstrate and master? Target student work that exceeds and truly replicates the lesson or task Objective. Praise the student work that highlights the learning objective. This is a great instance for the use of a Show Call. Privately offer Precise Praise to the student, and then use the work to show to the class. Using praise in this manner highlights the work and the objective, on a secondary level it acknowledges the student. In terms of face value, it raises the stakes for other students to produce higher quality work and puts less emphasis on being a shining star student of teacher favored renown.
Differentiate Acknowledgement from Praise: I like this one because it truly gives more meaning to Exceeds the Standard vs. Meets the standard. Acknowledgement is given more frequently. Praise is mindfully reserved. Acknowledgement is better used to label behavior. Praise is the accolade for skills and final products. Acknowledgement is for routine behavior that Meets the Standard. Praise is saved for student work that clearly Exceeds the Standard. If Praise is given regularly for everyday tasks, as in, being seated with pencils ready, then compliance with the every day tasks becomes less of a norm. Devaluing expected behavior through the use of excessive praise can become a pitfall in the classroom. Here are some differentiated phrases from the text¹:
Acknowledgement: “Marcus is ready!” vs. Praise: “Great job, Marcus. This thesis statement clearly uses the target vocabulary.”
Acknowledgement: “Thanks for being ready Marcus” vs. Praise: “Fantastic insight, Marcus!”
Acknowledgement: “I see everyone’s pencils moving”, vs. Praise: (reading student work aloud, “Now this is how a strong verb can give muscles to a sentence. Excellent revision, Shanice”.
Conserve exclamatory phrases like, super, great, excellent, outstanding for Praise. Acknowledgment is simply acknowledgement, stick to “Thank you.”. This conservation of language deters the devolution of your praise; it’s less likely to become “cheap” if student work, (not the student) has truly earned it by exceeding the standard. Here’s a great video clip demonstrating these differences, narrated by the book’s author, Doug Lemov:
Modulate and Vary Your Delivery: When you deliver Precise Praise, consider the following: Public vs. Private, Loud vs. Quiet. This is almost like a personality inventory; I know that I lean more toward Loud and Public, so it stands to reason that as a teacher I ought to develop Private and Quiet. This may be as simple as anonymously reading or using a Show Call to showcase student work that exceeds the standard. Students may or many not see whose paper was picked up and read aloud. Then ask students begin working again, in a crouched whisper, offer genuine Precise Praise to the student in question. Again, this sort of transaction emphasizes to the group that the task, objective and work is of estimable value, not necessarily the person. As discussed in technique # 53, Least Invasive Intervention, modulating the purpose of mini “private conversations” creates sense of open mindedness around private interactions. Students are less defensive about being approached as an individual in the classroom because the nature of the 1:1 conversation could very well be positive feedback or positive correction. Either way if students are occasionally selected for a tete-a-tete with their teacher, the quality of the interaction becomes more genuine and memorable if this is done so privately and mindfully.
“Praise always walks the line between the benefit of allowing others to overhear what’s praiseworthy and thus encouraging them to seek to emulate it, and the benefit of the genuine sincerity of its just being about the recipient…although socializing and influencing others through praise are beneficial, they’re less critical than the long-term benefit of maintaining the credibility and genuineness of praise.”, (p.437).¹