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05.26.16Positive Reinforcement: Distinguishing Praise from Acknowledgment in the Classroom

Slide2Technique #59 in Teach Like a Champion is Precise Praise. One of it’s key ideas is that you should give lots of positive reinforcement to students to build morale &motivation but that you should try to distinguish acknowledgement from praise. In the book I describe the difference this way:

Acknowledgment is what you often use when a student meets your expectations. Praise is what you use when a student exceeds expectations. An acknowledgment merely describes a productive behavior or perhaps thanks a student for doing it, without adding a value judgment and with a modulated tone. Praise adds judgment words like “great” or “fantastic” or the kind of enthusiastic tone which implies that such words might apply. “Thanks for being ready, Marcus” is an acknowledgment; “Fantastic insight, Marcus” is praise. “Marcus is ready” is acknowledgment; “Great job, Marcus” is praise. Distinguishing the two is important, as reversing some of the examples will demonstrate. If I tell Marcus it’s fantastic that he’s ready for class, I suggest that this is more than I expect from my students. Ironically, in praising this behavior I tell my students that my standards are pretty low and that perhaps I am a bit surprised that Marcus met my expectations. Perhaps they aren’t expectations after all. Either way, praising students for merely meeting expectations may reduce the degree to which they do so over the long run. It also makes your praise seem “cheap.” When Marcus writes a powerful response to a piece of literature and you call it “fantastic,” you will be describing it in a manner on par with how you described coming to class on time, and this may perversely diminish his accomplishment. In the long run, a teacher who continually praises what’s expected risks trivializing both the praise and the things she really wishes to label “great,” eroding the ability to give meaningful verbal rewards and to identify behavior that is truly worthy of notice. In short, save your praise for when it is truly earned and use acknowledgment freely to reinforce expectations.

That said I get a lot of questions about the difference between the two so I put this short slide deck together to help explain what I meant and to clarify how the terms “praise” and “acknowledgment” all under the umbrella term “positive reinforcement.”  Here they are. Hope they’re helpful.

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