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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.10.13How Positive Framing and Precise Praise Fit Together

positive-thinking-2I’m writing from the C-terminal at O’Hare where I’m sitting out a 5-hour delay getting back home to Albany.  Ever get that feeling that for every hour that passes another hour is going to be added to your delay?   Anyway, I’m coming home from Colorado where I had the honor of leading a workshop for a group of super-savvy technical directors at the US Soccer Federation.  Completely fascinating:  the guys were all pretty much elite coaches—some of them former national team players—who now oversee and develop other coaches, nationally or for elite clubs. The topic was how to help coaches become more effective as teachers.  We talked a lot about Checking for Understanding and Systems and Routines, etc.  At the end we talked about giving positive feedback and I think I had a bit of an epiphany.  I thought I’d share it here to get feedback and see if there was anything to it.   I should note that this is one of the reasons I love occasionally giving workshops to groups who are slightly outside the norm of the space where I work—I often have epiphanies as I try to see the material through their eyes or adapt it to their issues.   I’d been thinking a lot about the linkage between Positive Framing and Precise Praise anyway.  People often ask at workshops and I sometimes have a difficult time framing a clear answer…  do they overlap? (not quite).  Do they address a different set of issues? (yes)  If so how?  Where does one end and the other begin?   I was also thinking about a bunch of articles I’d read recently about praise and positive reinforcement.  For example there was this one in the Harvard Business Review noting that on effective teams people gave one another 5 times as much praise as critical feedback.  But then there was and this one in the NY Times describing how in the right settings—with people who are professionals and have a learning modality—people really want and like critical feedback. They feel cheated without it.   I was thinking about all of that—struggling to reconcile it, anyway–as I prepped for my workshop.  In addition I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that while I would LOVE to tell coaches trying to develop elite players—or teaches trying to develop elite readers—that they should praise 5x for every critical comment but that I wasn’t sure you always could.  To guide someone to excellence you sometimes have to do a lot of correction.   This pushed me to think more about my suspicion that we tend to over-simplify the notions of critical and positive in reference to feedback.  For example some of the most “positive” teachers I know give a ton of critical feedback (that was the general idea behind Positive Framing, of course) and on the other hand I’ve worked with a coach who was caustic and negative in his “praise”:  “Hey you finally got it!” “Look, Kaitlin can cross with her left!”  I think I’d rather have criticism! Anyway I ended up with a matrix:

Positive Tone Negative Tone
Corrective Content Positive Framing “Criticism”—often nagging or deflating.
Positive Content Precise Praise Sarcasm

What’s most useful to me is:

  • ·         The clarification that Positive Framing is how you make your constructive and/or critical feedback culturally positive so it feels motivating, caring, and purposeful to the recipient. Interestingly, one result of this is that using Positive Framing allows you to give more critical feedback while also keeping culture strong.  And incidentally signal, in a very Carol Dweck kind of way, that making mistakes and learning from them is positive.


  • ·         Precise Praise is about managing your positive feedback to ensure its focus, sustainability and credibility.  This is just as important. You have to be careful not to dilute it and make it seem disingenuous.


  • ·         Finally, the relationship between Positive Framing  and Precise Praise is now clearer to me. They are tools that you use to make two different kinds of content (constructive and positive) culturally positive and motivating while also retaining their rigor.


  • ·         Giving positive feedback can still fail to create positive culture.

So first, does this make sense to you? Do you buy it?  Would it advance the cause to add it to our HBE workshops?   Then, second, I am actually wondering if the biggest ramification is a re-categorization of one of the key elements of Positive  Framing: Narrate the Positive.   Most of the other forms of PF—Assume the Best, Challenge, Talk Aspirations, Plausible Anonymity—fit the definition of trying to wire your constructive feedback to make it feel positive, motivate people and build a Dweck-like growth mindset.   Narrate the positive, really, is a tool you use to acknowledge positive actions in the classroom with frequency and normalize them, making them more visible to students. It’s a Precise Praise technique you could argue, since it has a clear synergy with differentiating acknowledgment from praise (I like it when teachers Narrate the Positive with simple acknowledgment and not over do it with praise) .  Also when people use Narrate the Positive wrong they tend to use it to “circum-narrate” negative behavior by talking a positive circle around a kid who needs a correction instead of addressing that head on—ideally with as positive a correction as possible. In other words, if the matrix is right, I wonder if Narrate the Positive should get moved to Precise Praise.   Eager to hear your thoughts!   (By the way, I’m really excited to have this blog so I can run trial balloons by like-minded folks from time to time… thanks!)

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7 Responses to “How Positive Framing and Precise Praise Fit Together”

  1. Eric Anderson-Zych
    April 10, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    I really like the matrix you developed as it goes a long way toward explaining why what seems like praise does not lead to improved behavior or continued higher performance. Letting the sarcasm in really dilutes the value of the praise.

    I wonder how many of us struggle with this in teaching, coaching, and personal relationships.

  2. joboly
    April 10, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Would love text/link that further explains your statement re: “circum-narration”

    • Eric Anderson-Zych
      April 10, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      I think he means talking around an issue rather than talking directly about it.

    • Doug_Lemov
      April 10, 2013 at 10:49 pm

      thanks for asking. maybe simpler if i make it my next blog post. but the short version is that it’s when a scholar is behaving poorly (i’m assuming that there’s some intent here) and the teacher will narrate a circle around him (I see jason is paying attention; i see sarah is doing her work) instead of just saying to the kid in question: David show me your best. i know a lot of teachers do it. i find it “fraught” more to come. 🙂

  3. April 10, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    I agree that I’d like to hear more about when teachers use Narrate the Positive incorrectly or ineffectively. When I was first introduced to this technique, it was called behavioral narration and the intended goal was two-fold: 1) to reach 100% compliance with the positive praise acting like a subtle reminder of what to do, and 2) to circum-narrate a specific child. We were also directed to use behavioral narration constantly, for every transition and direction. I have found, however, that it loses currency and effectiveness the more you use it. The students start to tune you out. My friend’s high school students were even able to point out his narration to him and commented that “all the new teachers talk like that.” Anyway, I would certainly like to hear more about how to get the most out of Narrate the Positive.

  4. joboly
    April 11, 2013 at 2:40 am

    So it’s an issue of appropriate proportion, ie don’t use positive narration as an anonymous individual correction when the severity or persistence of the misbehavior warrants something more direct. When you say “narrate around” it’s because it’s too indirect. Got it.

    I also think the combination of your and Gabrielle’s comments really elucidates a potential pitfall of the technique. Overreliance on positive anonymous forms of correction without willingness to escalate the invasiveness of the correction results in both wasted time and student mockery.

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