Education is About Students, Often the Debate Isn’t

This article was originally published by Eric Haas of the Rockridge Institute on March 3, 2008.

Like many people, I am regularly frustrated by the way people on what is often understood as progressive media talk about education. They often use conservative frames. Why? I see two reasons: biconceptualism and the pervasiveness of conservative frames. Remembering the former, we can change the latter.

We recently received these questions about education:

“How can we get the discussion of education back on students? Why do I find even the more progressive news outlets, such as PBS’s The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, talking about minimizing costs, firing workers, and closing schools, but not about students and how they learn?”

These are great questions. I, too, am regularly frustrated by the way people on what is often understood as progressive media talk about education. They often use conservative frames, not progressive ones, and I wrote last summer about one glaring example from NPR. Why does this continue to happen so often? And, how do we change it?

I see two related reasons: biconceptualism and the pervasiveness of conservative frames on education.

Biconceptualism is important because it is the idea that people’s brains contain both conservative and progressive frames. The important point here is that very few people think consistently in only one way: not with only progressive frames or only conservative frames, and people don’t think with frames that are some mushy combination between the two. Rather, the vast majority of people think with either conservative or progressive frames, depending on the issue and the context. We might think about the health care, for example, using mostly progressive frames and education with conservative frames. And, we might still consider ourselves to be a progressive. Others could see us that way, too.

We use frames reflexively and mostly unconsciously. So, unless someone is truly reflecting on how they think about education, they are not very aware of the frames they are thinking with.

But why does it seem that more people tend to think about education with conservative rather than progressive frames? For about the last 30 years, conservative organizations and politicians have been pushing the conservative frames about education. Namely, that information comes in little objective fact objects; that teaching and learning are about simply delivering these facts to the student, which they store directly in their heads; and that standardized tests can measure the accumulation of these objective facts. One result of this thinking is blame the students and teachers for problems: if students are not getting high test scores, then it is only because the teachers, students or both are not working hard enough or efficiently enough. I wrote about this in The Framing of No Child Left Behind, labeling this logic as the production frame of education, built on a factory metaphor for schools.

These conservative organizations and politicians have been repeatedly pounding this message for so long that most people have it in their brains and unconsciously think with it as if it were natural, common sense. So, even generally staunch progressives like Ted Kennedy and the reporters on PBS and NPR have been found thinking about education with conservative frames. I wrote about this in Students Are Like Plants, Not Widgets. Despite the obvious and on-going damage that occurs in schools due to the implementation of programs based on the conservative production frame, people continue to think this is how teaching, learning, and schools should be. They literally cannot conceive of school in any other way, certainly not according to the progressive growth frame, built on the gardening metaphor. The conservative frames are wired into their brains and the progressive ones are not. So, they advocate for changes in the current system–“better” standardized tests, “better” use of test scores, more test preparation, different teachers, and so on. They literally have a hard time thinking any other way.

So, how do we change the frame? How do we move the frame from one of cost efficiency to one based on the real acquisition of knowledge?

We must actively promote the progressive growth frame into how we talk about education. We must actively promote the real learning activities that result from this thinking: ones that allow and assist the teacher to support the student’s active construction of knowledge. For example, we must actively promote assessments that test a student’s knowledge holistically by applying them to complex, real-life situations and then integrates that assessment experience back into the learning process. And, we must challenge the conservative frames and metaphors, and especially the ineffective, and often destructive, activities that result from that thinking.

Further, we must also challenge the conservative frames about government. The “blame the student and teacher” mindset comes also from the conservative notion that government should have a limited role in education, if not be removed altogether. Private businesses should run education instead, and people should get what they can pay for. For conservatives, government’s role is primarily police and military protection, which makes public education an extra that people must earn. So, individual people, such as students, families, and teachers, are blamed for the lack of achievement, but government is not. For conservatives, there is really only personal responsibility. (We wrote about this in Making Accountability Accountable [insert link].)

Progressives, like our Founding Fathers, see government differently. The role of government is the protection and empowerment of the people. Empowerment means support so that people can live meaningful lives–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Education is a key element of empowerment.

Government must be held accountable to provide the resources to ensure that students and schools can be successful. So, in education, there is social responsibility as well as personal responsibility.

Changing the debate is an important part of changing the way we think about education. To do this, we must reach out to both the progressive thinkers and the biconceptuals, who will gravitate to the progressive message on education. We do this by educating ourselves and reflecting on our own thinking and communications about education. We do this by promoting progressive frames and challenging conservative frames in our communities–in our children’s school, such as in teacher conferences and in PTO meetings; in school board meetings; in candidate forums; and in letters and calls to media outlets that continue to misrepresent what teaching and learning is all about and what schools should be about. We must also support progressive programs and organizations that promote progressive education. This is one way to start getting the education debate–and our minds–to focus on students.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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