Dr. Julie Sweetland: Strategic Framing for Schools
Julie Sweetland, a sociolinguist and senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute shares how leaders and advocates can use strategic framing and communications to have more productive conversations around complex issues.
In this episode of SchoolCEO Conversations we speak with Julie Sweetland, a sociolinguist and senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute. She shares how leaders and advocates can use strategic framing and communications to have more productive conversations around complex issues. You’ll learn practical strategies for framing issues, understanding different audiences and viewpoints, avoiding common communications pitfalls, and making conversations with your community more constructive.
Julie Sweetland, Ph.D. (@jsw33ts) serves as a senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies how issues are framed in public conversations and how that impacts outcomes. She has over a decade of experience in education as a teacher, instructional designer and teacher educator focused on issues of language, race, learning and professional development. Julie holds an MA and PhD in Linguistics from Stanford University.
FrameWorks has a number of valuable, actionable resources on their website including these:
- Framing 101
- Changing the Narrative on Public Education
- Reframing Family, School, and Community Engagement
- Reframing the Education Conversation through a Core Story Approach
- Talking Teachers and Teachers’ Unions
Main Discussion Points:
- What framing is and why it’s important for driving productive public conversations (07:00)
- Common barriers to communication (e.g. not understanding your audience’s assumptions) (11:15)
- Strategies for overcoming polarization and partisanship (18:15)
- Don’t remind people of misconceptions or problems you want them to forget (25:50)
- Using the “bridge and pivot” technique to redirect conversations (31:10)
- Core framing narratives: individualism, fatalism and otherism (35:45)
- Why crisis framing rarely motivates action and change (40:10)
- Leading with solutions vs introducing problems first (43:47)
- Using stories to illustrate systems, not just individuals (hero vs landscape framing) (48:44)
“Framing is about making intentional choices about how ideas are presented.” (7:31)
“Never remind someone of something you want them to forget.” (25:47)
“Crisis framing is not helpful unless it is an action you need somebody to take right that moment, and they only need to do it, like one time.” (39:29)
“People do not generalize from that hero to the support systems around us.” (on hero framing stories) (50:35)
Follow SchoolCEO on LinkedIn or X/Twitter @school_ceo.
Subscribe to SchoolCEO at SchoolCEO.com for research, stories, and strategies for leading your schools. And if you have a story you’d like to share, email us at email@example.com.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Today we're joined by Julie Sweetland. Julie is a socio-linguist and she serves as a senior advisor at the FrameWorks Institute. Since joining FrameWorks in 2012, she has led the development of powerful learning experiences for nonprofit leaders and has provided strategic communications guidance for advocates, policymakers and scientists around the world. Prior to joining FrameWorks, Julie was actively involved in improving teaching and learning for over a decade as a classroom teacher, an instructional designer, and a teacher educator. Her research has focused on the intersection of language and race, the role of language variation and language attitudes, on student learning, and on effective professional learning for teachers. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, but in particular at the Journal of Sociolinguistics, Educational Researcher and Education Week. She has completed her MA and her phd in linguistics at Stanford University. There's so much more to her bio, but to just jump into the conversation, I want to welcome Julie.
So Julie, thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.
Julie Sweetland (Guest): Oh, thank you Tyler, for having me. It's really looking forward to the conversation.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, I reached out to you and we had a short conversation about a month and a half ago, and since then I've dug in more and more into your background, into FrameWorks, background and history and what you are doing there. And there are just an enormous number of resources and I just didn't realize quite how deep those resources went. So I'd love for you just to tell us a little bit about FrameWorks, your work there, your background, and then we'll jump into more specific questions about how we can use the resources and research that you all are putting out.
Julie Sweetland (Guest): Absolutely. So FrameWorks Institute is a nonprofit based in DC, and we work nationally and internationally to figure out the best ways for issue experts, advocates, leaders to lead productive public conversations on issues that matter. We do that primarily through research. We are a group of social scientists from different disciplines. As you mentioned, I'm a linguist. We have other linguists on staff, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, anthropologists, et cetera. And we use those various backgrounds to study the communications aspects of these different social issues.
So our work tends to be in three big areas, health equity, children and families, and economic justice. But we've studied lots of different topics over the last 25 years since we've been around. I joined FrameWorks because we were at a moment when we were just about to start to roll out a significant body of research on reframing education reform. We called that project the core story of education, and the idea behind that project, circa 2013, 2014, was how can folks working in various aspects of education reform, whether they're at the classroom or district level, or if they're at an NGO or working on federal policy, and whether they're working on instruction or assessment or equity issues or out of school, after school issues, a lot of those challenges, a lot of the challenges that folks in those spaces face are framing challenges.
They're about how to position an issue, how to talk about an issue in ways that really move the conversation forward, as opposed to getting stuck in conversations we all wish we never had to have again. Like, isn't it better to just teach from the front of the classroom? Right. Things like that. So how can we move past old, outdated ideas and into some dilemmas in education that are worth arguing about and understanding at a deeper level?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's interesting. I didn't realize that your background had started in research before FrameWorks. Have you seen shifts happen? I mean, I think we all have seen some things changing, but when you think back to 2013, 2014, and now, ten years later, what conversations have shifted? What conversations are new that you are focused on now in education?
Julie Sweetland: Yeah. Well, I think one of the recommendations we came out with at that time was based on the insight that so much of the conversation about education was looking to the past. So, so much around back to basics. When I was in school, we used to do it this way. We just need to get back to basics. And that phrase kept coming up again and again. We saw a lot of that thinking manifested in the education reform policies of the time. Right. A lot of no excuses charter schools, a lot of focus on very low level testing or testing of very low level skills. That was one of our insights and recommendations, was that education reform advocates needed to move to a more future oriented story about education. What are we preparing students for? What's the future we're preparing students for? What kind of skills and knowledge do folks need and how do we need to reorganize teacher preparation, our buildings, our schedules, to be able to do that?
So I think that conversation has shifted. I don't work deeply in education issues as much these days as I did a decade ago, but the conversations that I see in the public square and even just around the playground talking to other moms, it's not about, jeez, why aren't they doing it the way they used to 1520 years ago, or an imagined past? But it really is about grappling with how do we get ready for the future? So I think that's been one of the biggest shifts.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a really good call out. Well, let's dive into the foundational piece. So, FrameWorks Institute. And it's all about framing conversations, right. So when we talk about framing, what do you mean by that? And kind of give us a really good understanding of what that is as a way of preparing for the conversation.
Julie Sweetland: That's a good 101 question. So, as a group of scholars in different areas, we definitely have some very nerdy fights about what is framing. Exactly. So I think the thing we can all agree on is that framing is about making intentional choices about how ideas are presented. And we know a frame is having. Our framing is having an effect if we can see measurable or systematic differences in how people are responding based on saying it this way or that way.
So the choices can be pretty high level, like, where to start, what to emphasize, how to explain it, and what you leave unsaid. Or they can be pretty discreet. And word level, like, do we call it an achievement gap or an opportunity gap or something else entirely? Right. So framing is the process of making those choices and making them strategically to really bring people into the conversation and lead the conversation in a productive way.
Tyler Vawser: Okay. That's really helpful. Now, when I think about framing, I can think about it in different ways. One is like an individual level, kind of like you said. Even with what words am I choosing? I can think about an email I'm writing to a colleague or to a guest on the podcast. But I think there's also that higher level framing. Right. When we're thinking about policy changes or a new initiative or some kind of strategy that we want to be adopted by a community, does this apply to all situations, or is it more high level and less granular, or the other way around?
Julie Sweetland: I mean, as a linguist and as somebody who studies how people use language, I feel like we're always framing. You're always making a decision of some sort or another about how to communicate. We've chosen to have this conversation in English. Right. There are choices that we've made that have stories and values that go along with them as to who this conversation is for, who's included, who's speaking, who's excluded. So, yes, you're always framing. You might as well always be framing strategically, as I like to say. But as an organization at FrameWorks, we really are trying to think about bigger issues that need to be moved. So one of the projects we have right now is how to ensure that assessments that we're doing in schools, whether those are informal or formal assessments, whether they're teacher led kind of assessments or standardized assessments, how are we making sure that the way we're assessing what we're assessing and the way we're using that data is really moving the conversation? Not moving the conversation, moving our outcomes in an equitable way, ensuring that students with disabilities are included, ensuring that students with backgrounds that aren't necessarily supportive of a great educational experience are getting a great educational experience. Right.
So that's kind of a big issue, and it's going to require having Americans rethink. We're going to need to teach some new ideas about what assessment is. Right. And it's not just a test. It's not just testing. And the information is valuable and useful. So those are the kinds of questions that not everything we do, not all the ways we have done it are necessarily fair or advancing fairness. And so those are some of the bigger issues. That's usually what we're talking about. We're talking about framing an issue at FrameWorks.
Tyler Vawser: Okay, well, data, of course, is a big part of that, and you just brought that up. Right? Anytime you're doing assessing, there's going to be data involved. And I think there's sometimes this sense of like, well, just let the data speak for itself. You and I both know it's not that simple. And any educator that's listening to this know that's definitely not the case. So what are the fundamentals of framing when we think about something like assessments or data? And why is framing necessary?
Julie Sweetland: Well, first, I think one of the fundamentals of framing is to remember, for all of us to remember, we are not our audience. Right. Whatever topic we're communicating on publicly, we have some sort of subject matter expertise. We have some sort of deeper, intentionally learned familiarity with that topic. But in contrast, some of this is not my line. It's a famous quote from Walter Lippman. Most people don't think about most issues most of the time. Right. And what does that mean? That means that they are relying on little snippets of ideas that they've picked up just by moving through the world from their own experience in school or all the movies in the world that have the heroic teacher rescuing the kids, and they stand on the desk when they really want to make a point. There's all these media culture, material culture. So people are just relying on those ideas, and they use them to quickly assess what we say as subject matter experts.
So people are filtering what we say through a very different set of underlying assumptions and associations than what we have as people close to an issue. So we're not our audience. We have to anticipate how they're going to interpret and more often misinterpret what we say. It doesn't mean we need to treat people with suspicion or become spin doctors or anything like that. But we do need to take a moment and say, I've got to step back from my own lens on this issue, my own frame on this issue, and think about how are people going to hear this? What are the sets of assumptions they're coming with, and how is that going to shape what we say or shape how they hear what we say? So that's one another is that the things we're talking about are too important to leave the reaction to chance. Often we are communicating in ways that it's just things that we've heard a million times. I can't count the number of letters I either wrote when I was in education or have received or emails where there's like a mantra that we're always talking about are students, teachers and parents. And that phrase, for example, those three people, students, parents, teachers, we rely on it because those are the folks that we encounter, right? They're the people we serve and work with. Kind of.
Most often what we found at FrameWorks is that that mantra, we called it the tangible triad. When people hear those three people, students, teachers, parents, those three characters, they really stop seeing a system as a whole and they start looking at education as the way to fix education is to fix the motivations and the willpower and the drive of either the students they need to do more homework, the parents they need to buckle down and make their kids do their work, or the teachers they need to stop being so greedy and just care more, right? So that it becomes a story like that thing that we say. It's pretty simple. Sometimes it's a bad idea, right, to focus on students, teachers and parents. But if we're leaving out the bigger system, if we're leaving out the stories of communities, if we're only talking about the individuals involved, people misunderstand the system. So that is a long way of saying other people are not our audience. And we have to look to research to really see what is it that we might be saying that might be landing the wrong way or having an unintended effect. And we shouldn't leave that to chance or guesswork. There's research and methodology available to us to get it right.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I found an interesting worksheet on your website on frameworksinstitute.org, and it talked about, you say they hear, right? So we say one thing, they hear something else. And just that little framework just there. Right. Without even going into more detail, it's a helpful moment to say, okay, I'm saying this. What might they be hearing that's different than what I intended? And I think that example of that tangible triad is such a good one, because you're right, that was exactly the words that we use, parents, teachers, students. And that's kind of shorthand for us. But to someone that's outside of the education system, how they might perceive that or how they kind of dissect those different problems or motivations.
Julie Sweetland: Absolutely.
Tyler Vawser: Well, we keep talking about polarization around America. We are recording this the week after thanksgiving. And if your family is anything like mine, politics, of course, came up. Right. I think it's an american pastime at this point to talk about politics around the Thanksgiving table. But I am curious, are you seeing any particular trends around how leaders, in particular school leaders, can cut through the noise? Right. As the american public is very much in a dialogue about the future of american education, is there something that school leaders can do to present their messaging in a way that cuts through the noise?
Julie Sweetland: Oh, what a great question. And what a hard thing to pull off. I think there's lots to be said about polarization. Reams of ink or whatever websites are written in. Right. Are being spilled on this. I think the first thing we can all do, it goes back to the idea of part of framing being what we leave unsaid is one thing we can all do to address polarization is in our public conversations. Stop talking less about polarization. The continuous conversation about it normalizes it and makes it more of a thing.
Now, there is lots of evidence that on some issues and on some personalities, there are topics in which Americans are very polarized, meaning there are distinct camps and not a lot of folks in the middle. Right. It is also true that there are tons of issues where that is not the case and where there's much more of a continuum of opinion. And the third thing is that it's also true that even an individual's point of view on one of those topics, particularly one that hasn't been very ideologically sorted, people's reactions, their understandings, are frame dependent. So a person who you look at issue x, y, or z, that's high on the topic list of nightly news, they check all the boxes for red or they check all the boxes for blue. When it comes to topics like, I don't know, assessments or recess or school nutrition or bus schedules. Right. Like a lot of the things we have to deal with, those aren't polarized. Those aren't ideologically sorted issues. Right. So there's a lot of space for us to reach people, and in the course of reaching people, help to undo some of that polarization. Right. Help to really have conversations where there are people with different political affiliations working together in common cause. So one thing is, don't lead with the issue of polarization. I know this is a controversial topic, but I'm just going to say it. Or, I know some people feel strongly about this, but here we feel that, like any story that's about the division, you don't have to bring it up. And the reason not to bring it up is because bringing it up makes it more of a thing. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. A second thing we can try is to, is in our pronouns.
Now, people are talking a lot about gender pronouns, his, her pronouns, but I mean, our first person pronouns, can we use more? We are together. Us together is not a pronoun, but you get what I mean. Are there ways that we can talk more as a collective position, the issue as a collective one, which might be a little different than what school leaders might be used to doing, which is to say, for your daughter, your son, your student, can we do that more for our students, our children, our learners? Are there ways that we can, again, speak from a collective rather than an individualistic or us versus them kind of stance? And then the third thing I would recommend is to think about it goes back to that you're not your audience and you say they think, are there words that you're using that can be heard as a partisan cue, as a telltale sign that you're team red or team blue. And those words, some of them are obvious if you talk about, I don't know, gosh, if you call something gender affirming care versus sex change, right. That was, you know, gender affirming care is the more left leaning progressive term. Sex change is a more derisive term and associated with political conservatives. Right?
So some words are really obvious, like which kind of side you are on a particular issue. But others, we have found it's surprising the words that can become a partisan cue. When we did some research recently on a couple of years ago now, as the manufactured controversy over critical race theory was coming up and we were doing focus group type things with republicans in Virginia, right? So right in the eye of the storm, we thought critical race theory would be a partisan queue. At that moment, most people had never heard of it, even though it had been repeated multiple times a day. On Fox News at that point, what was a partisan queue? Was the word truth. It sparked argument about whose truth, whose perspective. If you said truthful or more accurate or honest, that was okay. But truth was a word that was like, wait, who's truth? And now I need to figure out, where are you coming from? Are you my team or their team? Another word was democracy. One of the arguments we were testing, one of the frames we were testing to see if it helped people understand why we want to teach very comprehensive and sometimes difficult, emotionally difficult ideas about America's past with race and racism. One of the frames we were testing know children need to understand our past in order to be informed leaders and kind of play their role in democracy.
We found a couple of things. One, people quickly associated the word democracy with politics, and then the conversation felt political, even though what we were trying to get across was just kind of the institution of we are a nation of folks with freedom and the right to vote, not about who you vote for. But democracy got conflated with politics. Now it's a political conversation. And then democracy also just gets people to think about democrats more. So, right. There's a root word effect. There's a priming effect there. So in that instance, we found that it's better to talk about kids need to learn our past in order to be able to solve the problems of the future and to be able to lead us in the future. That was widely seen as acceptable across people with different political affiliations. So don't use partisan cues, but check to see what might be a partisan queue that you might not even expect.
Tyler Vawser: Wow. That was one of the best answers I think I've heard on this podcast for any question. So I think everything you just said was framing, but in a very practical way. Right. I think when we hear framing or we hear about an institute, we think, oh, that's going to be tough to understand, but what you just walked us through, I think anyone that's listening has tools to be able to start engaging better conversations. And what I hear from you is it's about being really intentional and being thoughtful about your audience so that they can actually hear what you want to communicate, instead of kind of rushing to communicate or being too impatient and just jumping to what you need to say with the hope that the faster you say it, the more you say that it will get across to them.
Julie Sweetland: I think that's well put. I wish I had said it that way myself. Thank you. But, yeah, framing is about being intentional, and that's not necessarily how we hear the word get used, like kind of on the news or I'm in DC, so we're all watching the politics podcasts and shows all day, every day, and you hear like, oh, well, they framed it as the issue as a matter of mental health or as a matter of this and that. And it's not about being manipulative. Right. Or it's not about being calculating. It is about being intentional and thoughtful. And it's, I want to invite this person into a conversation worth having. Let me not shut any doors on them. Right. By choosing the wrong word or skipping over the context or failing to kind of ensure, show folks that we all have a stake in this issue. So it's an invitational rhetoric, not an argumentative rhetoric.
Tyler Vawser: I would add that if you do it correctly, it's empathetic. Right. You're actually empathizing with them. You're putting yourself in their shoes and kind of look, looking behind their glasses and doing that on their behalf rather than your own agenda being pushed on them. You're actually thinking about what is their agenda and how might they be able to see something new, but from their own position.
Julie Sweetland: Yeah, definitely. Taking into account the assumptions and associations that folks have. I know your audience is mostly school leaders, and so they're very much civic servants. But as an advocate myself, I have an agenda. I believe it's a worthwhile, noble agenda that's going to make the world a better place. But as an advocate, I have things I want to get across. Framing is like, I don't need to shove it down their throats to get it across. Right. By creating some common ground, by anticipating what people know, don't know what they believe to be true that might not be true. By anticipating that. Yeah, that is a very empathetic stance.
Tyler Vawser: So I see your .1 other practical phrase you gave me in prep for this call was when we were talking was you said, never remind someone of something you want them to forget. Can you talk more about that?
Julie Sweetland: Oh, yeah. So folks who are working to improve conditions or drive social change are often deeply aware that they're working kind of against the grain. They're doing something countercultural. Simple example. We worked in the field of oral health, and in some communities, the fact that fluoride is added to drinking water has become politicized. Or at least there are folks that are resisting that. Right. You would see these folks, folks that were on the side of the public health point of view that this is a safe, effective, low cost intervention. Adding the fluoride, it would put out all these flyers that would say fluoride does not cause brain damage. It will not do these things. It would state all the misconceptions that were out there about fluoride in the water, and then underneath that myth, fluoride can cause brain damage. Fact. No, it's safe. And it doesn't even interact that way. That kind of myth, fact, organization we've seen not only in our own research, but lots of respected studies, is exactly the wrong way to go about it.
Our brains work through a process of association. And just as school leaders know that children need to be learners need to be exposed to a concept again and again to build up the schema, well, those misconceptions, they work the same way. You hear it once, you hear it another place, and now, boom, you've got this myth right in your brain. Well, if when we restate it, when we restate that myth, even if our intention is to debunk it, we've actually activated that schema. We've activated that neural pathway that holds that idea in place, and we've given it another repetition, and we strengthened it. And then we want our one sad repetition of our fact to overcome that lifetime of experience and expectation. So that's definitely not going to work. And so that's where I say, never remind people of something you wish they'd forget. That doesn't mean that we just leave people with their misunderstandings or their misconceptions, particularly in this era of actively disseminated misinformation. It means that we have to be, again, strategic and evidence based in how we respond to those misconceptions. So the fix, the framing fix, is to state what is true, offer an affirmative statement of what is true. Fluoridated water protects and builds enamel, right? That is true. And then you explain why that works. If the misinformation is such that you feel ethically, morally, practically, or tactically obligated to remove, to tell people that's wrong, you then use some ideas like, it is a harmful myth that such and such is the case. And then you make it sticky for folks.
You don't just say, that's not true. You say it's a harmful myth, that you may have heard this, and then you offer people a reason to remember why it's not true. And so two of the tactics that evidence suggests is to call out a motivation of the source of misinformation and to call out the harmful, the potential harmful effect of why it's a problem. So you could say people doing this often are working from outdated, debunked research, and I worry that our health will be undermined as a result. Right. So you give people a different mental model to work from. That idea is wrong and bad. Right. Without getting blamy judgy, you don't want to sound. Calling out a motivation is different than accusing someone of something awful. Tone matters, particularly if you're speaking from the point of view of a public leader. But, yeah, that's my riff on misinformation and myths.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think it's so smart. Right. It's well intentioned to try to go at it as kind of the myth fact, but it doesn't work out that way. Can you also talk about bridge and pivot? Because we talked about that a little bit and I dug into it, and I thought that was a really useful way to avoid derailing conversations. We don't all have enough time to dig into every issue. Right. Sometimes these issues are kind of short five minute conversations in the hallway or maybe at the pickup line or something like that. So how can we use something like bridge and pivot? What is that and how is it useful?
Julie Sweetland: Yeah, here's how bridge and pivot, which is a phrase from kind of old school media training, works. Let's imagine someone says something that's really problematic or that at least you want to resist. And so, okay, I don't care if kids can be creative. I just need them to read and write. Like you can imagine you encounter someone at a coffee shop or something that starts talking to you as a principal. So I don't care if they can be creative. I just want them to read write. The bridge and pivot technique. You don't argue that person down, and you don't just leave them where they are. Instead, you start. You do ABC. First you analyze, then you bridge, and then you communicate.
So analyze where is that person coming from? They're coming from. What is the mental model that is underneath? That assumption is that there are basic skills and higher order skills and that they work like a staircase that you have to go over up the first step before you can get to the second step, that there's a linear progression. That's what they're working from. So you need to somehow unseat that mental model. You need to disrupt that logic. Then while you're doing that, while you're doing that quick analysis, this is when you use the bridging technique, you offer an innocuous kind of peace building kind of phrase. Like, that's interesting that you say, or I wonder if I could share a different way of looking at. Or I think the issue really is. So you just offer some sort of innocuous phrase to get from where they are to where you. That does a couple of things. Iit allows you to acknowledge what that person just said without actually restating their harmful idea. Right. We don't want to restate the thing. So, interesting. You say that. One way I like to look at it is. And then you communicate, you select a framing strategy that really kind of undoes or reframes repositions, moves that conversation to a better idea.
So, on that mental model of hierarchical linear skills, we found in our research at FrameWorks that offering people the mental model of a braid or a rope got people to think about how skills are contingent and mutually reinforcing. And so I like to think of skills as working more like a braid. And absolutely, we need the kids to read, and absolutely, we need them to write. But if they can't read books that spark their creativity or write in ways that really express themselves, what are they reading and writing for? They all twine together. That creativity can often be the spark that gets children to want to read and write. So I think of them as reinforcing each other. Right. So you haven't violated what that person just said. You haven't argued against them in the way. Like, that's wrong. That's not how skills work. But you have acknowledged what they said with the bridge and pivoted to your main idea, which is that skills are complex, intertwined, that sort of thing. So that's the abcs of bridge and pivot.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Really helpful. One thing that comes to mind as we talk about this is we're thinking about our own frames. How do we communicate to our audience if there is? Depends on the situation. But let's say there's an opponent on the other side. They're also thinking about what are the right frames for the audience. And in any conversation, we're all coming at a conversation from a different perspective. So how can we better see the frames or the perspective that someone that's in dialogue with us has? What the frames they're using and start to respond to those? And you mentioned it earlier. Right? Like, if we can kind of understand someone else's motivation, it's easier to meet them where they are without reminding them of their position.
Julie Sweetland: Right. So what I said earlier about we don't need to guess. I will say that in our voluminous body of research on the framing aspects of education, on our website, we've probably got 30 different reports that help map out the mental models and framing that we're up against. Often, we're trying to push more effective and evidence based approaches to education. So that's a long way of saying you don't have to guess what the frames are. They're predictable, and we've done the hard work of writing them down for you, so I'll refer you there. But the summary is that often any kind of negative frames that are getting in our way are most likely based on one of three foundational mental models that cut across issues in America. Individualism, otherism, or fatalism.
So, individualism, the sense that whatever the problem is, it's about a personal choice or failing. And whatever the solution is, it's about that person with the failing to get it together, work harder, work smarter, and kind of overcome whatever challenge may be before them.
Otherism is making groups of people other, distancing them and often dissing them. The idea that those people, those kids, those parents, those teachers, are somehow less than and responsible for the problems they're facing, basically. So that's one.
And then fatalism is the sense that the problems before us, it is what it is. The problems are too big to fix. Nothing we do matters. Government's not going to work. We're kind of stuck with what we've got. So you can probably spot one of those three mental models. Sometimes they go together and combine, but you could spot one of those, and you can use that bridge and pivot technique, assess. Are they coming from a very individualistic point of view? I want to counter that with some way of helping people see the collective side of this. Right.
The contextual side of this. That place matters, that what surrounds us, shapes us. They're coming with otherism. I need to respond to that with some form of togetherism. Right? A sense of shared community, benevolent community, as Dr. King might say, beloved community, or a sense of social cohesion, that we're in it together. And if I'm hearing fatalism, the antidote is not optimism. It's realistic, pragmatic. There are things we can do. Right. So thinking about that as a way to engage in those frame contests, I hope can be helpful.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that is very helpful. I think sometimes we are well intentioned with. I don't know if this is quite the right use of fatalism, but I'll use, like, the teacher recruitment crisis as an example. Right. I think. Well, school CEO has done a lot of research into this, and both in 2019 pre pandemic as well as 2023, mostly post pandemic, about how teachers are thinking about where they're going to work, how they make their career decisions. It's been really helpful. But one of the things that, of course, has been part of that dialogue outside of school co. Is that the teacher recruitment process is really difficult. It's really bad, it's really negative. But the idea of saying that is that we'll inspire people to line up at the doors, sign up to be teachers and come into education. But I think it's actually had an opposite effect. Right. And so I've seen some of the institutes work on this, and what's interesting is, while it may be kind of a quick solution, it long term doesn't really work to kind of scare people into taking action.
And so I wonder if you can talk about that. We kind of want to paint a dire picture to inspire people to make a change, but instead what happens is they're scared away or they don't listen to us the next time we cry out.
Julie Sweetland: Absolutely. Crisis framing is not helpful unless it is an action you need somebody to take right that moment, and they only need to do it, like one time. If you need me to go in my basement because the tornado is coming, yell tornado. But in terms of when it comes to social issues, which often are complex, need more than one actor and definitely more than one action to be resolved and take time to resolve, ringing the crisis bell is not effective for that kind of engaged, collective, durable social action. We've been advising against crisis framing since 1999 and have lots of evidence from lots of social issues that moving away from a story, away from the chicken little, the sky is falling little more into there is a problem, but we can see our way around it, we can steer our way around it. That kind of story, balancing your sense of problem, yes, it's serious, but you have to give people that sense of solution, because if you don't, like you said, people turn away. And we see often that it leads to a sense of apathy or overwhelm, more so than a sense of kind of, let's rally together and work on this.
I think that is even more true as we are coming out of a moment of genuine crisis with the pandemic and with many of the other things happening in our nation. If everything's a crisis, nothing's a crisis sort of thing. So not even. Just don't use the word crisis, although that's true. I would advise against using the word crisis and framing issues. But a lot of the ways that we do it subtly. A whole stack of stark statistics at the beginning about how bad the outcomes are, who they're worse for, and how much worse it's gotten. Over time, that leads up. It adds up to a public story that, again, it's broken beyond repair. The people in charge can't get it together. You know what I should do? I should just worry about getting my kids into the best school I can, and I'm just going to cocoon and handle me and mine and walk away from the broader issue. So, yeah, don't do that.
Tyler Vawser: Is part of the problem that we're spending so much time detailing the problems and not very much time at all talking about the solutions. Right. Like, we spend an hour long talk, 50 minutes of it is on the problem, and maybe if we're lucky, ten minutes are talking about the solution.
Julie Sweetland: Yeah, let me do the whole first opening page of like, six paragraphs about how bad it is, and then I can get to recommendations, maybe in small font on page 44 of the report. That is absolutely emblematic of how we are communicating. And there's a history to why that's communicating. Right. The history is that it comes out of an understanding of the mind, of the human mind, and definitely society as rational actors. If I can rationally show you that this is a problem, and I can convince you of that, at some point you tip over into, okay, you've convinced me it's a problem. I will now solve it. And the one thing that all social scientists and cognitive scientists are pretty agreed on over the last 30, 40 years of work is that human decision making is not rational. Right.
There are moments where we can be rational. It's not that it's completely irrational, but if you are relying on communication strategy that is based on logic will win them over, you're relying on a very faulty underlying assumption. So what you want to get to is a mix of urgency to get people to pay attention and efficacy can do in order to get people to feel that taking action would make a difference. And that's kind of the magic combo there, framing wise.
Tyler Vawser: And is that called solution oriented framing?
Julie Sweetland: It can know there are folks like the Susan's journalism network. I think leading with solutions is very often an effective strategy, framing wise. And it's also true that there are some issues where people just don't understand that there's a problem or they will give very surface level, like, sure, sounds good, a thumbs up to an idea, but when the rubber hits the road, they're not willing to put any kind of oomph behind it. An example comes to mind from our work on dual language learners.
So young folks, often very young children, zero to eight, often who are bored for families, parents who immigrated to this country, but not always. But point being, they're growing up in a home where the heritage language is not English. If you ask Americans, should all kids kind of get dual language support, bilingual support? They say, yeah, sure, sounds great. Massive levels of support when you say, okay, but I'm going to delay formal instruction in English to some kids to make sure that their first language is really strong before introducing a second language. Or we're going to need smaller classrooms in order to allow for the kinds of bilingual instruction. Or I'm going to need to mess with the charter enrollment strategy. So I've got balanced numbers of English dominant and heritage language dominant students. If you start asking those hard questions, no, all those kids who learn English and only English, the other language doesn't matter.
So if you led with the solutions on that issue, you would have a problem. You really need to introduce the problems in some topics because people don't have enough mental model re mental machinery to even understand why we need a solution. But, yeah, that balance of urgency and efficacy is usually the winner.
Tyler Vawser: So let's continue with that example if you're okay with it. I'm curious how the common good frame would apply to that same question or that same scenario.
Julie Sweetland: A common good framing on dual language learning. Yeah, so that's interesting. I'm trying to remember it's been a little bit since we did that research. We did test some of the instrumental type of values, why having lots of bilingual children is a good thing for America. Right? We tested a national security argument. We tested an economic benefit argument. And what we found, and those are common good kinds of things. And what we found is that people really resisted the idea that those far off outcomes for those children were predictable or likely, and they were much more focused on making sure the kids had a good educational experience.
Now, on that issue, the common good kind of arguments that we came up with to test were not broadly resonant. Maybe we just didn't test the right ones. Always a possibility. But what we found worked were things that were much closer to the child. And you want to collectivize that. But we found that making sure that people understood that strength of real strong fluency in the heritage language could accelerate children's academic learning closer in time. But that was a child level benefit. It wasn't a society level benefit that mattered. We also found that emphasizing the family relationships and the cultural relationships that a strong heritage language could allow for being able to talk to your grandparents and being able to have that culture passed down was also very compelling in that issue where the collective framing came in was in saying, and schools have a part to play in this.
Right. It doesn't all happen at home. You need to have that language kind of affirmed, acknowledged, welcomed as big a dose of it, and as much space for it as you can in the classroom, depending on which instructional strategy is going on. So I hope that responded to your question.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it does. Yeah. That's helpful. Well, my next question for you, Julie, is about hero stories versus landscape stories. And in SchoolCEO, this season of the podcast, we've really focused a lot on storytelling, on influence, communicating effectively, and storytelling always comes up. And I think the natural response to storytelling is the hero story. But this idea of a landscape story really caught my attention, and I would love for you to talk about that.
Julie Sweetland: Yes. So a portrait story or a hero story, or as one scholar called it, an episodic story, zeroes in on the journey of a particular individual, right. And that the awesome teacher in room 17, who just goes in and through the goodness of her own heart, dips into her own pocket, works with that child closely, and magic ensues. Those stories grip our imaginations, they grip our hearts, they grip our emotions, and they are compelling in that they get our attention. They are not always the most effective framing to get people to rethink a social issue. So even if you've told, I experienced this when I was working in teacher professional development, where we were always trying to say, look, if you take this approach, if you approach teachers differently, you can get these amazing outcomes. And we were often trying to do that idea through the story of one amazing teacher who just did very cool stuff. And people would say, well, sure, that's just that teacher. Right. They would individualize the issue and dismiss the approach kind of behind it.
So individual stories can get attention and they can build sympathy, but they don't get people to see systems. People do not generalize from that hero to the support systems around us. So a landscape story or a thematic story is instead of just the portrait, you've got the whole big view. You've got more of the social context, the processes, the supports that are in place. What are the enabling conditions? Now, all those words are not fun storytelling techniques. Let me explain to you the enabling conditions for this amazing teacher in room 17. You don't want to start to sound like a sociologist. You definitely still want to be a storyteller. But you can use metaphor, or you can use well chosen examples to put the decisions and actions of humans into context. So our school district is like an orchestra or a marching band, and it takes all of us. Right. To create kind of this amazing sound that you hear in the hallways down that one hallway, the early childhood sector section. Right.
We've got these skilled educators really working closely with young children to build their creativity and their language skills up that hallway in the upper elementary. Then we've got our resource teachers and our special education teachers and our lead teachers really building in that content knowledge. And I can tell you the story of the great project. It takes all of our support people, paraprofessionals across the campus to really make sure we're all marching in step and staying in tune. And that's the kind of story. So putting things in, making it a team effort in a way that sounds, that really shows the different skills and parts that people play, is the antidote there.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really helpful. One of my final questions for you is kind of thinking about communication as a spectrum. You have an organization that's not very good at communicating at all. They're just not sharing information out. But I think most schools find themselves, they're actually communicating all the time. They're sharing information. They're even sharing stories. But what's the other end of that spectrum? So a school district, a school leader that's really exceptional at communication, but also at framing what takes an organization from good or better than good to great or even exceptional, what's the path to get to that exceptional side?
Julie Sweetland: I think it's about having a North Star or a long term goal for the big ideas you want to build into the conversation in your community or on your issue. The conversation, however you're defining it, right? Whether that's your school building, the district or the nation, or folks working on assessment or equity or whatever it may be. But you have thought about. It's almost like backwards planning for instructional design, where you think about the learning objectives by the end of this unit. Right. I want my students to understand this. Those three big ideas, those essential questions that they would be able to answer. You've thought about that. You've thought about that core story that you want to tell across your communications and each opportunity you have, whether it's about a very tactical, practical, hey, remember, we've got teacher professional development on Friday kind of communication to something where you have more of a storytelling opportunity. You think about each of those communications as an opportunity to tell a little bit of that bigger narrative. So you have a template. You have a larger narrative you're trying to get across. Our district is about being an anchor for our community, right? Or it's about reflecting the best in our community. You've got a big idea about what you're getting across, and you're expressing that somehow, some way across everything.
Tyler Vawser: That's a wonderful place to end it. Julie Sweetland, thank you so much for joining the conversation.
Julie Sweetland: Thank you for having me. This has been a true joy and thanks, all you listeners for doing the hard work that you're doing. It's important and needed.