If ‘facts bounce off frames’, are we going about this all wrong?

True to form, Robert Pondiscio’s post last week at US News & World Report’s ‘Knowledge Bank’ clearly and convincingly argued why narrowing curricula to build elementary students’ reading skill actually works in reverse of its intent. All the guy does, as they say, is score touchdowns.

Shortly after the story’s publication, Fordham‘s Mike Petrilli, obviously frustrated, tweeted,

Great question, Mike, and I’m right there with you. Seriously: why is it so hard?

[NOTE – Though I’m working toward a separate point here, I have a few longer responses to this question in my book, Education Is Upside-Down. Here’s the quick overview of those responses: One, our current accountability systems came online in ways that only encourage practitioners to throw unsound practice at kids harder and faster, making some enterprise-wide weaknesses even weaker; two, it’s hard to convince ed’s practitioners of such realities when the training they receive, from ed schools and from their in-career professional development, is almost never based in such realities. For more thoroughly argued/supported versions of these overviews, check out Education Is Upside-Down, chapters 5, 7, and 10 in particular. Now, back to that point…]

I mean, it’s not as though the cognitive-scientifically supported ideas about improving reading instruction Pondiscio leans on in his US News piece are exactly fresh-cut. These ideas’ one-small-step/one-giant-leap work, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, is almost 30 years old, for crying out loud. Many (Pondiscio, for sure — here, here, and here are examples of similarly themed/presented pieces he authored or co-authored going back to 2009), even Hirsch himself, have riffed on, refined, and recycled these foundation ideas considerably since Cultural Literacy‘s release. Hell, the Common Core literacy standards were authored around these foundation ideas. Still, surprisingly few practitioners are even aware of these ideas, much less meaningfully, practice-changingly swayed by them.

Again: When the facts about how people become effective readers cut such a clear case, and when they have been repeated over and over by brilliant folks for years, why is it all still so hard to turn into sound, consistent practice?

After rolling this question around some more and, frankly, struggling through some real discouragement (i.e., wondering if I was indeed stuck in some kind of echo chamber, wondering if I should throw up my hands on this thing altogether and buy a food truck, etc., etc.), I remembered the work of U Cal-Berkeley cognitive science & linguistics professor George Lakoff. I was particularly inspired by Lakoff’s ideas when I was sketching my book. In fact, he’s a big part of why I decided to build my book around a metaphor/image (the upside-down funnel) as a framing device. Doing otherwise and not taking care to properly frame, I learned from Lakoff, would render even the most compelling facts impotent. See this, from his 2004 Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate:

But we know from cognitive science that people…think in frames. … To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. … Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have — the long-term concepts that structure how we think — is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise, facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they or not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. (p. 17)

It’s an important idea that those of us in the echo chamber (yes, I’ve just decided to own it) must consider more closely. Until we think of effective ways to frame the facts that have so transformed our own understandings about instructional practice, it won’t do us any good to keep lobbing them at others who, for whatever reason, are not as convinced as we are of their promise. We can continue to ask ourselves why research-verified practices aren’t taking root, we can continue to get frustrated at the practitioners who can’t seem to accept such clear truths, or we can get working on what actually, at a cognitive level, moves people’s thinking and actions.

However wrongly we all may be doing it, here’s some good news: Dan Willingham is on it. Already a thought-leader in areas of cognitive-scientific learning theories, Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, explains the cognitive science behind effective, rewarding reading. Of course, right? It’s Willingham! This time, though, such messages are presented with considerably elevated ‘frame appeal’. Without ever backing off the ‘long-game’, stressful aspects of building strong reading comprehension, for instance, he continually emphasizes reading as a fun and vital pursuit, all the while urging educators and parents to always do the same. Realizing this is a tough balance to achieve, he makes space in every chapter to pass on easily applicable practice tips. Also, Willingham dedicated his recent researchED talk in New York to instructing the assembled on things to know if they want to become better persuaders: cognitive and emotional processes girding people’s beliefs, how best to push, how best to lay off, and so on.

I’ll end here with a challenge: First to think about how you tend to frame all that learning you’ve been doing about effective instruction for others, and second — especially if you realize you haven’t yet bothered to frame — to consider building effective frames for those great facts. Without such frames, after all, those facts alone likely won’t have the torque necessary to move others’ practices. Oh, and this: if you’re unsure what ‘proper framing’ looks like, give Lakoff’s work a look. He’s far better at describing why language has the effect it does than I could ever hope to be (especially in the space of a blog entry), and his examples, though largely based in political debates, provide wonderful concept illustrations. Frame on!



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