It’s hard to deny the importance of finding the best ways to educate our kids to be thoughtful and engaged citizens, productive members of our economy and well-rounded individuals. So why is it so challenging to promote new ideas in education? Partly, of course, this is because education is a complex issue that affects so many people so intimately — teachers, school officials, policymakers, the business community, and parents and families.
But can we find common ground in moving toward a more inclusive and effective education system? We think the answer is yes. We’ve had the honor of working with leading foundations and nonprofits in finding solutions to complex communications challenges on education — including the Ford Foundation, David & Lucile Packard Foundation, Raikes Foundation and Nellie Mae Education Foundation, as well as City Year, America’s Promise and others.
Communications research we’ve conducted over the past seven years has identified messages and strategies that motivate and mobilize people to support policies and practices designed to improve education and learning across the age spectrum, from newborns to high school graduates. These tips can help you avoid common pitfalls and advance your ideas in this crowded space:
1.Engage parents — don’t catch them by surprise.
The people most likely to care about changes in local schools and how kids are cared for are the adults in kids’ lives. But time and time again, our analyses of public debates on education reveal that advocates of new education policies and practices aren’t engaging parents in processes that will change the lives of their children. Often, parents enter the public conversation about education policies only when they have a problem with what’s happening. So parents’ voices are more often heard in opposition to new ideas, rather than in support of them. (Parental backlash against Common Core is a high-profile example.)
Advocates need to engage parents in discussing and developing ideas from the beginning, rather than taking them by surprise. In our work with America’s Promise, we found through research that parents of struggling eighth-graders feel empowered to play a part in their kids’ education when they understand what they can do to be part of the solution. This also goes for other adults who play a major role in the lives of children, as explained in this video we created with the Packard Foundation to launch its Starting Smart and Strong program:
2.Describe the problem addressed by your idea, but be sure to emphasize the potential for solving it.
To motivate people to support an idea or get involved in a cause, we need to describe the problem we’re trying to solve in terms everyone will understand. We need to create a sense of urgency to act by highlighting what is to be gained if we take action — and what will be lost if we don’t.
A mistake experts and advocates often make is emphasizing the problem too much in their message, or explaining it in the wrong ways. Making the problem sound too dire or complex can make people feel like it can’t be solved, which is demotivating. Research has found that if you try to use lots of statistics to prove your point, you may confuse your audiences, and they’ll stop paying attention.
If you read about the Packard Foundation’s work for Children, Families and Communities, you can see the problem they’re working to address: “Formal caregivers need opportunities for training and professional development, while parents, family, and friends need to know the importance of reading, playing, and forming quality relationships.” The problem — formal and informal caregivers don’t always have the support they need — is intuitively understood. It also connects directly to the solution that Packard provides: tools such as “information, coaching, and support so that everyone can facilitate children’s development.”
3.Paint a clear picture of the change you aim to create — abstractions don’t win hearts and minds.
Psychological research also teaches us that people are more motivated to pursue concrete benefits than abstract outcomes. For example, we are all more likely to get involved with a cause that focuses on “equity” if we know how equity makes lives better for students, families and communities.
Often, the education conversation exists in the ether — with talk about abstractions like “equity,” “improving systems” and “whole child.” To motivate people to get on board with your policy or proposal, they must be able to visualize the outcomes of implementing your idea. This video by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation provides a clear, concrete vision of how Student-Centered Learning can improve the educational experience for all kids in public schools.
Effective communication is only one part of creating change in this complex field, but these three tips can help you avoid common pitfalls and position your idea for success.