The Importance of a Public Story

Telling a compelling public story is essential to building public will for change. Read about the types of stories that can help your audience feel they are responsible for being part of the solution.

We all live in an information-saturated era. And yet, it’s tempting for those of us working tirelessly to advance student-centered approaches to learning to try to make a case with information alone. In reality, to build genuine understanding, well-researched messages need a sturdy container. Stories help humans make sense of the world. Whether they begin with “Once Upon a Time,” or “In the Beginning” they draw people in.

Toolkit_ganzTelling 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.”

A Public Problem with a Public Solution

Student-centered learning has many facets, so our story must be a large enough container to hold them all. In addition to describing the solution, the story must answer the questions: What is the problem? and Who is responsible for solving it? The FrameWorks Institute‘s 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.

Thematic Stories Build Public Will

FrameWorks has brought the work of 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. Most stories in the media are episodic because they are much easier for a journalist to cover on a tight deadline. In education, to draw attention to our pioneering work, it’s tempting to feed reporters episodic stories—individual portraits about a poor student who has overcome the odds or a charismatic teacher. This is, however, a strategic error. As FrameWorks researchers have shown, the public understands these kinds of stories 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.

In contrast, thematic storytelling focuses on themes, trends, and the broader context. Thematic stories 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 do more than build the public’s knowledge. You also engage them in the change process because you have presented the public as the party responsible for the solution, rather than individuals, such as teachers or administrators.

In a nutshell, if you present the public with an individual problem, they will expect 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.

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