Framing Digital Media and 21st Century Learning

Two new surveys released last week provide promising evidence that digital technology in classrooms is playing a positive role in children’s skill development. As children learn to navigate new technologies, they become more active in their learning, more self-sufficient as researchers, and more engaged in what they are doing. Subsequently, their higher order thinking skills – like creativity and critical thinking – are improved. And somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, this then impacts basic skills in math, science, and reading for the better.

That’s what the New York Times story (“Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say,” November 1, 2012) could have reported. It’s all in there. In fact, most of the teachers surveyed reported using digital media in their classrooms and often to good effect. But instead of focusing on those results, the survey discussions themselves (the Pew Internet Project and Common Sense Media) and the Times article frame the issue as one where teachers compete with technology in a zero sum game for the students’ attention spans…and lose.

The way students process information is changing – that should not be surprising to us. And the fact that teaching methods developed in a different era fail to hold attention as well as they used to should also not be entirely surprising. But framing these studies in terms of entertainment and attention spans plays right into the dominant ways that the public thinks about digital media in the classroom – that digital media is just for entertainment, that it is distracting from “real” learning, that it is dangerous, and that it should be limited in the classroom. So even if the positive messages from the study are buried in there, the “entertainment” frame will cue these dominant ways of thinking and the messages about improved skills won’t get heard.  In short, rather than informing people and challenging them to update their thinking, these news stories leave people very much where they started.

Arguably the most important message from these studies – that these technologies seem to be improving basic skills and higher order cognitive skills – needs new frames in order to get around those dominant ways of thinking. That’s what education experts told FrameWorks researchers, through interviews conducted for two recent projects: one on Digital Media and Learning and one on Skill Acquisition in Education.  Experts told us that digital media, if mentored for students in the right way, can provide useful tools for reconceptualizing learning as hands-on, student-centered, collaborative, and engaging. This reconceptualization of learning is widely regarded as critical for moving education forward in this country, as evidenced by the July 2012 National Research Council Report, “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century.”

With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, FrameWorks conducted a multi-method investigation into ways to communicate what experts have observed about the benefits of digital media to learning. Several of our recent recommendations can help communicators get this message across to the public without falling into the traps of those stubborn if outdated patterns of thinking.

  • The first is to orient people towards the future with the value of Progress – to help them see that technology is compulsory for moving our country forward successfully. The New York Times article does the opposite – orienting the reader to the frame of the “good old days” before the Internet and other media tools.
  • The second is to orient people towards a practical path forward, pointing out the value of technology skills for the workplace, through the value of Pragmatism. Clearly the “crisis” tone of the New York Times article frames the issue quite differently.
  • The third is to use a Cooking with Information metaphor comparing information to ingredients and students to cooks. With the help of a more experienced mentor (teacher), children need to be able to find information, evaluate it, and combine it into a product, in a hands-on way. And while the metaphor itself doesn’t even mention technology, it is implied that technology is not a distraction from real learning, but rather it is an important tool for this active learning process.
  • The fourth is to concretize and highlight the mentorship aspect of this learning process with the Information Drivers metaphor. It functions similarly to Cooking with Information, emphasizing that you can only progress in learning by getting your hands on the wheel. But it also shows that we don’t just hand kids the keys to these new tools and set them on their way. We mentor them so that they can do it safely and responsibly and get where they need to go.

Bringing people along, giving them the conceptual tools to rethink outdated ways of looking at the world is a prime challenge for educators and digital advocates. The bad news is that, as long as media is content to parrot old tropes and folk wisdom, the task will fall to you. The good news is that, with a little conceptual help, people warm to the idea of achieving 21st century skills using 21st century methods.  But you have to work to get them there.




Framing for the Velcro Memory

Is human memory more like a filing cabinet or like Velcro?

The answer to this question has significant implications for experts and advocates looking to shift the public conversation on social issues.

The Heath brothers, in “Made to Stick,” state that the brain stores information more like hooks in Velcro than like empty file folders in a cabinet.

They write:

“If you look at the two sides of the Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks gets snagged inside the loops, and that ‘s what causes Velcro to seal.”

Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops.  The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory.” (Made to Stick, p. 110-111)

So how can advocates and experts make their ideas more “sticky”? How can we make sure that social issues are understood, remembered, and have a lasting impact on the public’s attitudes and behaviors?

We make social issues more sticky through strategic framing.

We present ideas and stories about social issues that make them concrete, understandable, and meaningful. With strategic framing, we give our ideas “hooks” that enable them to be memorable in the public consciousness.

To evaluate whether your organization has a sticky message, consider the following questions as part of your strategic framing checklist:

  • Did you introduce the social issue by using a value that illustrates why the public should care?
  • Did you broaden and deepen understanding of the social issue by using a tested explanatory metaphor?
  • Did you signal early in your message that solutions exist? Do the solutions “fit” the problem as defined?
  • Did you inspire optimism and give evidence that the situation can be improved? Did you establish the cause of the problem, and did you assign responsibility?
  • Did you simply and effectively put the problem in context and explain long-term consequences, trends and opportunities to resolve the problem?

Pay attention to these key questions and create hooks for your social issues to make them memorable in public discourse.



SWAMPED! FrameWorks' New Launchpad for Learning

When you hear the word “gaming,” what do you think about? For many people, gaming evokes images of couch potatoes and gory violence; of time wasted and disapproving parents. But we’re moving toward a world in which people will hear “gaming” and think “learning.”

In our research on Digital Media and Learning, we at FrameWorks found that most experts in the field emphasize the power of experiential, hands-on learning. Hands-on learning inspires critical thinking and creativity. And video games are all about hands-on.

It’s with this research in hand and with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we are excited to announce the launch of SWAMPED! a series of new interactive tools intended to help advocates communicate the need for public funding of education and health issues. So far we’ve launched two games, one on Early Childhood Development + Budgets and Taxes and another on Education + Budgets and Taxes, with a third on Health + Budgets and Taxes currently in production. These tools shows front-line communicators how to take control of their messaging strategies, ensuring that communication goals can be advanced through the “swamp” of public opinion.

We are proud to be not only advocating for, but also participating in the changes happening in learning. Are you ready for gaming and framing?

Try your hand at SWAMPED! and let us know how you are using these new communication tools in your work.

The Myth of Compassion Fatigue: Why Thematic Frames Are Essential

Brooke Gladstone recently wrote a blog post called “Combatting ‘Compassion Fatigue’ and Other Reporting Challenges.” In the post, Gladstone takes on the old problem that, in journalism, “one death is a tragedy,” and “a million deaths a statistic.” This is one of the oldest framing problems that there is — the choice between an episodic and a thematic framing of a story.

Zoomed In

Episodic stories are simple, emotion-laden stories about individuals. These stories are very attractive because they are easy to think. As Standford University Political Science Professor Shanto Iyengar puts it, “Episodic frames focus attention on individuals; it is easier to see cause and treatment in the person depicted than in the context.”

Thematic stories, by contrast, concentrate precisely on that larger context. They zoom out and examine the complex environments and networks of people and influences that lead to a particular outcome.

The civil rights movement provides a clarifying example. In the common episodic telling of the story, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march to equal rights for African Americans. This story is simple and memorable. We can picture the face of a great man and, in our minds, move seamlessly from before to after; from problem to solution. It’s a fine story, but it’s not the whole story.

The same story told thematically tells a number of interrelated stories that involve multiple spokespeople, groups, and tactics. It is a story of concerted collective action between civil rights groups, churches, students, and everyday people working together to end political, social, and economic inequality. This movement led to a crowning piece of legislation in 1964, which set the stage for a the next phase of the struggle which continues today. This story requires a bit more work to write and a bit more thought to understand, but in many ways it is a better, and in a sense, truer, story. (Critics of thematic storytelling’s accessibility should note the success of television shows like The Wire).

Zoomed Out

Episodic stories may be easier for journalists and media producers to tell, and easier for audiences to think. But the problem is what people take away from these stories. Episodic stories put the burden of cause and solution for a problem on an individual — oftentimes an individual that we see as having nothing to do with our own lives.

Iyengar found in his study that, “People exposed to episodic coverage of various issues – crime, terrorism, poverty, racial inequality – tended to attribute responsibility for these issues to individuals rather than institutions or broad societal forces.” Poverty, for instance, “was viewed as a consequence of human laziness or lack of initiative; crime as a manifestation of anti-social personality traits.” In the broader public discourse, the easy story can be a dangerous one.

Iyengar found, however, that when these same people were exposed to thematic frames, responsibility shifted from individuals to political and social institutions. This is a key shift for communicators. While effective legislation and programs can be created to deal with the problems of communities and societies, they tend not to be created for the problems of individuals. It’s essential that advocates who want to impact real social change start learning how to tell compelling thematic stories.

Framing Social Media for Learning – A Positive Example

Our research has shown that the media often publish stories about the perils of living in a digital world. However, we found a very encouraging example that indicates how to positively frame digital media use for students.

In a recent article in the New York Times, a high school English teacher talks about the role social media plays in our lives.

The teacher, Jennifer Pust, said:

 I think the reason why I use social media is the same reason everyone else uses it –  it works. I am glad that it is not more restrictive. I understand we need to keep kids safe. I think that we would do more good keeping kids safe by teaching them how to use these tools and navigate this online world rather than locking it down and pretending that it is not in our realm.

Mentored use of social media is a key component of the Digital Media and Learning perspective. Jennifer Pust emphasizes this language in her quote. She stresses the use and functionality of this medium, while also including the important element of why students need adults and teachers to guide them in the digital space.

The FrameWorks Institute is currently working on helping DML advocates and experts better communicate the educational benefits of social media use for students. You can see some of our current DML research here. We are currently in the process of testing key framing elements that can be used to build greater support for DML programs and policies. Stay tuned for more!

It's Not a Fight When We Frame it Right: Toning Down the Fire

In our second installment on tone, we consider the role that the media plays in promoting the use of argumentative rhetoric on social issues.

Deborah Tannen, author of the “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words,” is a foremost expert on this issue. She is is a linguist, psychologist, and researcher and has looked extensively at the ways in which the media uses argumentative language in order to drive ratings. 

So what can we learn from her about using tone in communications strategy? It is important to recognize the types of tone that exist in communications for your social issue. Rhetorical or argumentative tone is one that is partisan, ideological, and opinionated. When social problems are communicated in a rhetorical tone, audiences tend to respond with skepticism regarding the messenger’s motives and hear that this is about politics and factionalizing. They are less likely to be open to new information and solutions-based thinking.

Unfortunately, the media environment in the U.S. encourages and supports highly rhetorical and argumentative communications about social issues. Tannen notes, “The argument culture urges us to approach the world – and the people in it – in an adversarial frame of mind.”

Tannen elaborates further,

“In this argument culture, the best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; to cover news is to find extreme spokespeople and represent them as “both sides”; to settle disputes is litigation; to begin an essay is to attack someone; and to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. While public discourse requires making an argument in order to advance a point of view, this is different than having an argument in order to create a fight.”

Tannen notes that most important social issues are portrayed by the media as having two opposing sides, which has several implications. First, the word “debate” as a way of representing issues – i.e. the health care debate, the global warming debate – predisposes the public discussion to be polarized. Second, it can prompt journalists to dig up an “other side” even when one doesn’t exist. Finally, it obscures solutions that lie in the middle or are more complex.

A reasonable tone activates a villager approach and a can-do attitude. When people are presented with a reasonable discussion of the problem, they are much better at understanding and processing new information. Your audience begins to think about how to solve the problem rather than how to identify the agendas of the messengers.

Here is a quick checklist to check on your tone when developing your communications strategy:

  • Make sure you are not inadvertently communicating partisan or political cues.
  • Establish a reasonable tone and an “American can-do” style to engage your audience.
  • Use a strong value to provide a universal, rather than narrow partisan cue, as the standard by which the issue should be evaluated.

For more information on tone see:



A Reasonable Tone…and Why It’s Music to Our Ears

Composers know how to use tone for maximum effect. Watch this clip from composer Philip Glass’s “Koyaanisquatsi.” This piece uses different sounds and visuals to create tones that elicit an audience response.

Tone is also a part of framing your message.  Tone influences the type of response you get from your audience.

Often with social policy issues, tone becomes dissonant, like certain kinds of music.  It becomes hard to listen to. At FrameWorks, we call this a rhetorical tone. A rhetorical tone is one that is partisan, ideological, and opinionated. When social problems are communicated in a rhetorical tone, audiences tend to respond with skepticism regarding the messenger’s motives. They hear that this is about politics and factionalizing and are less likely to be open to new information and solutions-based thinking.

So what can we do to tune-in with tone?

We can respond using a reasonable tone, which activates a villager approach and a can-do attitude. When people are presented with a reasonable discussion of the problem, its causes, and potential solutions, they are much better at understanding and processing new information. Your audience begins to think about how to solve the problem rather than how to identify the agendas of the messengers.

Here is a brief check list for tuning in to tone:

  • Make sure you are not inadvertently communicating partisan or political cues.
  • Establish a reasonable tone, and set up a problem-solving and an “American can-do” attitude to engage your audience.
  • Use a strong value to provide a universal, rather than a narrow partisan cue, as the standard by which the issue should be evaluated.
  • Use tone to reinforce other frame elements, not to undermine them. (For example, if you are calling for more supportive public policies, don’t sound harsh or extreme.)

For more information, see this FrameWorks FrameByte on tone.

What communications materials can you create that play to the tune of a reasonable tone?