Positive reinforcement is the key to effective classroom management and successful Project-Based Learning implementation. By incentivizing the behavior we want, rather than disincentivizing the behavior we don’t want, we create a positive classroom environment while still communicating clear expectations students.
The simplest form of positive reinforcement is affirmation, a kind, genuine word of encouragement. Some education experts use the term praise for this kind of encouragement, while others prefer the term feedback, while still others prefer the term acknowledgment.
This blog post will attempt to sort out the distinctions between praise, feedback and acknowledgment. In general, many common objections to praise in the classroom – that praise can be patronizing, or that praise emphasizes the teacher’s feelings over the student’s effort – are not an objection to praise itself, but to poorly implemented praise. Ultimately, effective classroom management and PBL implementation may rely on each of these forms of positive reinforcement.
Praise vs. Acknowledgment
Praise is the simplest form of positive reinforcement. Unlike other incentives – “play money” to purchase items from the school store or points toward some kind of reward like a class trip or party – praise does not require careful tracking or prepared resources. But implementing praise effectively still requires careful planning and thoughtful classroom management.
Some education experts distinguish between praise and acknowledgment, and believe praise should be reserved for times when a student exceeds expectations. So when students are preparing for a lesson, the teacher may acknowledge some who have properly followed the classroom routine, saying “Susan’s ready to work” or “Thank you Jacob, for having your book on your desk and your feet on the floor.” On the other hand, it is only when a student has exceeded expectations in a meaningful way that praise is warranted. “I’m really impressed with Group A’s work today. Not only did they record their Vegetable Rap, but they also designed an album cover and wrote a second song about fruit. Really great work today, Group A.”
However, other education experts counsel teachers to avoid praise altogether. Larry Ferlazzo writes that praise overemphasizes the teacher’s feelings about a behavior, rather than cultivating a student’s sense of satisfaction at a job well done. Additionally, praise can come off as patronizing. “If you would not make the comment to an adult,” says the blogger, “then think twice before making it to a young person.” For Ferlazzo, acknowledgment is preferable to praise when recognizing any classroom behavior.
“Rich” Praise vs. “Rote” Praise
Ultimately, the line between acknowledgment and praise is very thin. It may be that even simple acknowledgment includes a certain element of praise. “Thank you for lining up quietly, Jamir.” Is that acknowledgment or is it praise? Maybe both, but if it is praise, it is what I would call “rote” praise. Rote praise is quick and offhand. “Group 3 has lined up and is ready to work. Nice job, Group 3.” Rote praise is not a bad thing, but too much rote praise can sound insincere.
Rote praise should be balanced with what I would call “robust” praise. Robust praise is heartfelt, and goes beyond simply recognizing the desired behavior. There is no confusing acknowledgment with robust praise. When you briefly take a student aside at the end of class and say, “Tiffany, I know you’ve been feeling a little down lately. It really shows character that you’ve been here every day, and doing such great work. I’m really proud of you” you have offered robust praise. If you do choose to offer praise in the classroom, as opposed to only acknowledgment, look for opportunities to demonstrate sincerity and connection with students by offering robust praise, as well as rote praise.
Effort Feedback vs. Ability Feedback
When giving any kind of feedback – praise, acknowledgment, or whatever it might be called – it is important to think carefully about what traits or qualities are being encouraged. Praising a student for innate qualities, like intelligence, may be less meaningful than praising a student for hard work. In fact, it may be that praising a student for intelligence actually discourages effort over time.
A student who frequently receives “ability feedback” (“Great job on that math test, you’re really smart.”) may begin to attribute failures to a lack of ability, rather than a need for further study. “Oh well, I’m no good at math anyway,” this student might say. On the other hand, a student who receives “effort feedback” (“Great job on that math test, I can tell you really studied hard for this one.”) is reminded that, in your classroom, hard work is rewarded (and the gifted student is also reminded that simply being bright, by itself, is not enough).
Praise and PBL
Effective classroom management is essential when implementing PBL. The PBL classroom can be “messy” and teachers in a PBL classroom will act as facilitators, adopting a more hands-off approach and allowing students to guide their own learning. In a classroom environment that allows students to take the lead, it is more important than ever to set clear expectations for classroom behavior. And enforcing those expectations through positive reinforcement, like targeted praise, is a powerful tool.
When you’re preparing your next project plan, challenge yourself to offer meaningful affirmation or praise to every student throughout the course of the next project. A little encouragement can go a long way!
by: Jason Schwalm
photos: Duane Watts