Sometimes the lessons we need to learn smack us in the face—or in the ear, as in this case. Last spring, we heard a study reported on the radio concerning new parents’ attitudes toward vaccinating their children. Though not directly related to our work in education, the news story prompted an early-morning phone call between two of us—a school district superintendent and an education consultant.
The study explored parents’ concerns around immunizing newborns and the effectiveness of pro-vaccination campaigns. Parents were either given data, compliance information, or emotional appeals to persuade them of the importance of vaccinations. But here’s the shocker: Regardless of the messaging, vaccine-averse parents not only didn’t change their minds, they became even more determined not to vaccinate their children.
These campaigns had no effect on public opinion. None.
How could that be? After all, what reasonable person would not find data, regulations, or emotional pleas persuasive?
We believe it is important to encourage and promote a climate in which educators engage in risk-free conversations that allow for transformation."
As we kicked around the lessons from the vaccination study, we realized that if we squinted just right, the findings had a message for our work as educators who are often in a position to persuade people to think differently in order to transform schools and districts to better serve students. By the end of our conversation, we had come to the painful conclusion that the study actually presented a fundamental critique of how all of us operate at every level in the K-12 education field. Ouch!
How often do we find ourselves trying to sway public opinion or being the target of a campaign to influence our thinking? No matter what our job as educators is, we strive to improve conditions for our students. This requires us to update and change our practices constantly. We must be flexible in our thinking. And each time we engage someone, we are sharing our ideas, beliefs, and opinions. And whether we are conscious of it or not, we are trying to influence that person’s way of thinking.
This has called into question a few of our tried-and-true strategies that we believe are now worth sharing as cautionary tales.
As educators, usually our first go-to is the scientific approach. For example: Meta-analyses of studies related to homework assigned to elementary school students find that it does not lead to improved achievement. Or: Longitudinal studies indicate that ability-grouping has long-term detrimental effects on low-achieving students. These kinds of evidence-based analyses should work, we tell ourselves. There are researched and supported by data. And yet, despite such compelling evidence, reasonable people often don’t see eye to eye.
If this approach is not successful, we might move to the cuz-I-said-so default. For example: Federal guidelines require ... or State Education Code necessitates ... Who wouldn’t want to follow regulations? Surely, we believe that they’re in the best interest of students, right? Well, not everyone trusts “the rules,” and some of us even resent them.
Next, we might try appealing to emotion. A story from Data Strategies to Uncover and Eliminate Hidden Inequities: The Wallpaper Effect, a 2010 book by two of us—Ruth Johnson and Robin Avelar La Salle—illustrates one such case. The story is of Kyle, a boy who began kindergarten like most other students, but educational decisions that were meant to help him wound up trapping him in a low-performing track year after year. The result was tragic. Kyle came to realize that his high expectations for himself clashed with the limited opportunities of his education, so he left school and never returned. His experience should cause us all to think about schooling decisions—small and large—that we make for students throughout their K-12 lives. While it should convince every one of us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that tracking is simply wrong, not everyone arrives at the same conclusion.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned study we heard on the radio: Why had none of the communication approaches worked? And why, generally speaking, do our best presentations, riddled with data, research, stories, and pictures, not have us all in agreement about how to move ahead?
If the only ways we know to communicate with one another have no effect, then how do those of us who are entrusted with the care and education of the nation’s children move our institutions forward? How can we evolve, grow, and improve, if our minds are stuck?
We’ve come to the conclusion that the reasons the parents rejected the information about vaccinations were based on cognitive bias. We behave in accordance with our belief systems: We are our beliefs.
Changing parents’ opinions on the benefits of vaccinations would require an admission that they were harming their newborns, implying that they were bad parents. That was too painful a notion, and so they found reasons to reject the information, whether challenging its veracity, the related political agenda, or the credibility of the messengers. Sound familiar?
To teachers who are accustomed to a certain methodology, a statement such as “This other strategy is better” could be interpreted as “I have not been a good teacher; I’ve been harming my students.” For principals, the subtext for “Effective principals spend 10 hours a week doing classroom walk-throughs” could be understood as “Since I don’t get to many visits, I am a bad principal.”
We understand that there is no “right” way to approach communication. Instead, we believe, it is about how we, as educators, view others and ourselves. Do we imagine ourselves as experts, convincing others that they must see the world our way? If so, we are more focused on being right than on doing right. Or, do we see ourselves as members of a community given a most precious trust, that of educating our children? Do we recognize the awesome nature of this charge and the logical and moral imperative that we continue to challenge our own thinking?
Instead of “Tracking is bad, so agree, or you are wrong,” maybe we should rephrase it and say: “Tracking is an issue that is important for us to tackle together. Let’s review the current thinking, and try to understand it together.” In this exchange, both messenger and recipient become learners and problem-solvers; they have the opportunity to make the issue one of personal and collective agency rather than one of an imposed position. We believe it is important to encourage and promote a climate in which educators engage in risk-free conversations that allow for transformation. In doing so, we can still embrace the research and data, guidelines and examples, using them as flashlights rather than weapons.
We realize that sometimes the realities of the job discourage a more collaborative approach. Admittedly, we may not be able to work this way all the time. However, we would do well to remember the importance of engaging each other, bringing together our impressive fields of expertise with a healthy dose of humility and grace, and honoring the experience and perspectives of every person we speak with. Genuine conversation—not information campaigns—will yield the personal and collective growth we need to move education forward. Who knows the possibilities this could hold?
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as What a Vaccination Study Taught Us About Transforming Schools and Districts