“Reframe” how we think about things

Photo/Dennis Sparks

One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors. . . . The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and facts ignored. . . . Frames once entrenched are hard to dispel. —George Lakoff

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it. —James Baldwin

In Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life Alan Deutschman explains that people are influenced to change through three linked elements he calls relate, repeat, and reframe. “Relate” and “repeat” were explained in previous essays.

Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface system of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.

An example: The widely-held and seldom questioned “teaching is performance” frame places teachers “on stage.” Teachers receive “performance evaluations” and their dynamism and charisma are particularly valued. At its extreme, this frame leads students (and perhaps teachers themselves) to view their teachers as entertainers. While the “teaching is performing” frame highlights several important qualities of effective teachers, it is also limiting.

Phil Schlechty offers an alternative perspective in a JSD interview. Schlechty’s frame views teachers as leaders of knowledge workers and inventors of knowledge work. In addition to those responsibilities, I recommend adding to Schlechty’s frame the notion of teachers as team members and learners.

If accepted, this alternative frame holds incredible potential to alter how educators think about and practice significant aspects of schooling. For instance, teachers would become more skillful in providing engaging and meaningful knowledge work for students, and they would develop such work with their colleagues. They would be assessed based on the quality of the knowledge work they provide to students, on their ability as leaders to motivate student engagement with that work, on evidence of their continuous learning (not seat time spent in workshops), and on their contributions to ongoing teams.

Leaders can promote the development of new conceptual frameworks through a variety of learning processes:

Elicit and build on prior knowledge. Existing understandings about a subject may be elicited through brainstorming, free writing, and the creation of mind maps, among other strategies. Awareness of existing mental frames can sometimes in itself be a sufficient force to begin the often demanding cognitive process of constructing new frames. At other times educators may be asked to compare the similarities, differences, and benefits of existing mental frames and new ones.

Promote deeper understanding. The creation of new mental frames often requires a deeper understanding of a subject, the kind of understanding only acquired through processes such as the careful reading of relevant books and articles, writing for learning, reflecting on learning acquired while solving important problems, and engaging in dialogue.

Provide experiences. Sometimes new frames are best understood through direct experience based on the principle that it’s often easier to “act your way into a new way of thinking” than it is to “think your way into a new way of acting.”

An example: A leader who wants to develop a new conceptual understanding of professional learning might begin by asking teachers to brainstorm terms that come to mind when they think of “professional development.” Courses, workshops, presentations, and training are likely to come to mind. Perhaps some negative feelings about certain experiences may also be expressed. The leader might elicit deeper understanding of and an alternative frame might be elicited through study of articles found on the National Staff Development Council’s web site.

Teachers might then be asked to compare features and possible benefits of the new approach with the old. To give teachers experiences with new ways of learning together, leaders could incorporate small group problem-based learning as part of every faculty meeting, asking teachers to periodically reflect on the learning that occurs and how it alters their practice.

Take a moment now to . . .

• identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in an area in which you seek improvement. A starting point may be one of the examples offered above regarding teaching and professional learning.

4 Responses to ““Reframe” how we think about things”

  1. 1 Mike May 7, 2010 at 7:24 am

    A wise politician once said, “We are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts.” Reframing can help us to adjust our opinions and our “facts” as we see the world differently.

    Our assumptions can become unexamined “facts” over time and reframing challenges them.


  2. 2 Carol May 7, 2010 at 9:12 am

    I agree…teacher observations are truly valued when administrators take the time to observe their teaching skills with ongoing classroom visits and walk-throughs(vs. “dog and pony showtime”),all year long!

  1. 1 Adopt “vital behaviors” « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on June 7, 2010 at 4:25 am
  2. 2 Change Strategy: Avoid Bad Words and Message Mistakes Trackback on May 19, 2014 at 10:01 am

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