• “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”
    – James Humes
  • “There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication.”
    - John Dewey, Democracy and Education
  • “Communication is the real work of leadership.”
    - Nitin Nohria
  • “Over time and cultures, the most robust and most effective form of communication is the creation of a powerful narrative...”
    - Howard Gardner
  • Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
    - An old Native American proverb
  • "The art of communication is the language of leadership."
    –James Humes
  • “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”
    - Tony Robbins

A Compelling Public Story

We live in an information-saturated era. Information comes at us all day and night, and from all different directions. Whether it’s about our daily schedules and appointments, the happenings in our own community, or the issues and challenges that we face as a world community—we are inundated! In this 21st century, 24/7 life we live, it is impossible to make a case with information alone.

And yet, it’s tempting for those of us working tirelessly to advance student-centered approaches to learning to just bring on the information. To assume that our well-researched information will carry the day: “learning is the constant, time is the variable;” “learning can happen anytime, anywhere”; “the brain is a sophisticated organ and learning is a complex process.”

In order for these essential ideas to take hold and build genuine understanding, they need a sturdy container. This container is as old as human life; it is what allows us to make sense of the world around us, whether it begins with “Once Upon a Time,” or “In the Beginning.” We’re talking about STORY.

Telling a compelling and coherent STORY is key to building a movement for change in our schools. As social movement scholar Marshal Ganz tells us: "Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act."

marshall ganz
Marshal Ganz

“But what kind of story?” you ask. It’s a great question. Student-centered learning has many facets, so our STORY must be a large enough container to hold them all. It must answer the following three questions posed by FrameWorks’ Strategic Frame Analysis™:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Who is responsible for solving it?
  3. What is the solution?

FrameWorks has brought the work Shanto Iyengar, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, into its theory and practice. Iyengar’s useful distinction between two types of stories that are told in the public square --  episodic and thematic – is central to Strategic Frame Analysis™.    Episodic storytelling focuses on singular events that happen to individual people at specific places and times.   Thematic storytelling is much more ecological.  It focuses on themes, trends and the broader context.   Most stories in the media are episodic because they are much easier for a journalist to cover on a tight deadline. 

In education, because we want to draw attention to our pioneering work and because we recognize the media’s appetite for individual portraits, we are tempted to feed reporters episodic stories—about a poor student who has overcome the odds or a charismatic teacher who works miracles in the classroom.  This is, however, a strategic error.   Ironically, as FrameWorks researchers have shown, these kinds of stories are understood as exceptions that prove the rule.  Moreover, people attribute both the problem and the responsibility for the solution to that individual, rendering systemic factors altogether irrelevant.

Thematic stories, on the other hand, help people see the conditions and systems that must change.  You will be far more successful at building public understanding by “widening the lens” on whatever story you tell – in fact, FrameWorks has a useful module that can help you do just that.  Certainly, individuals will be in your stories, but when you provide a larger context for why a particular program or strategy is improving learning outcomes, you not only build their knowledge.  You also engage them in the change process.

The FrameWorks research tells us that, for the kind of STORY we want to tell about public education, the problem and the solution must be defined as PUBLIC. Moreover, the people responsible for solving the problem must be defined as EVERYONE—students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, municipal leaders, business and community leaders, senior citizens, and others.

In a nutshell, if you present someone with an individual problem, they will present you with an individual solution. If, on the other hand, you articulate a public problem, people will be more inclined to roll up their sleeves to help solve it.

Looking for something that's not here? Let us know by contacting Shaun Adamec, Director of Communications, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Toolkit Resources for Public Story

Opinion Editorials (Op-Eds)  |  Talking About…  |  Frequently Asked Questions  |  Brochures & Explainers

Opinion Editorials (Op-Eds)

The following op-eds appeared in newspapers and on websites across northern New England. They cover a wide range of issues but all of them incorporate the framed story of education and learning.

Champlain Valley Union High School: an op-ed about the school’s re-design efforts by Andre LaChance, English teacher and school advisor.

Theordora J. Kalikow, President, University of Southern Maine, weighs in on education reform.

David Theoharides, Superintendent, Sanford School Department in Maine shares his thoughts on proficiency-based graduation requirements.

Tammy Davis, Superintendent, Winnisquam Regional School District in New Hampshire, talks about systemic reform in the first in a series of newspaper columns.

Talking About…

The following documents and links reflect recommendations based on the results of research on how Americans think about education and learning. Understanding what we are up against in the public square is important if we are to overcome the entrenched ways of thinking that will undermine our efforts to move student-centered education forward.

Talking About System Redesign
A set of Talking Points created by the Shaping Our Future Together statewide campaign in Vermont.

Talking About 21st Century Skills
A summary of why the common use of the term“21st century skills” may not help your efforts to build public understanding.

Talking About the Achievement Gap
A summary of how the term “achievement gap” could inadvertently reinforce individual blame and the idea that some are simply more capable than others.

Talking About Equity and Disparities (16:08)
A video about what research has revealed on the gap between expert and public thinking about educational equity, and how to close it.

Talking About School Budgets
A summary of the problems with talking about school budgets in conventional ways and how to get out of common traps.

Talking About Common Core State Standards
One part of an extensive toolkit created by FrameWorks Institute on behalf of the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation.

Talking About Digital Media and Learning
A set of talking points to guide conversations about digital media, and about learning more generally.

Talking About Response to Instruction (RTI)
A graphic describing the Winnisquam Regional School District’s Response to Instruction strategy, a key component of the district’s larger district re-design process.

Frequently Asked Questions

These documents can help you create well-framed responses to questions about student-centered learning, district/school redesign, and other issues related to education and learning.

FAQs: Vermont’s Changing Education System
Questions and well-framed responses about new, student-centered legislation in Vermont.

FAQs: Digital Media and Learning
Common questions and well-framed responses about learning in general and digital media in particular.

FrameWorks Institute Education Reform Toolkit: Frequently Asked Questions

Brochures & Explainers

The following brochures and explainers are good models for what districts, schools and non-profit organizations might create to build public understanding of student-centered approaches to learning and system change. Please see Making Original Products for additional examples.

British Columbia’s Education Plan
A description of student-centered learning as articulated by the Ministry of Education in British Columbia, Canada.

Deering High School, Portland Maine
A document that describes the high school’s remodeling efforts and its move toward global education, including its affiliation with the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN).

Winooski Middle High School, Winooski, Vermont
A brief description of the school’s redesign efforts that went home with school progress reports.

Pittsfield Middle High School, New Hampshire
A condensed version of the Pittsfield Explainer, used by the district to build understanding of student-centered learning.