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Framing research for policymaking audiences


In a class I'm currently teaching on school-community engagement we read Benford & Snow's 2000 piece on "Framing processes and social movements," which in a nutshell reviews the literature on how framing - or how people interpret and describe reality for an audience via policy, imagery, or rhetoric - is used as part of social movements. I put the paper in the syllabus because a core idea underlying the course is that school leaders need to think about the cultural realities of the different constituents in their communities, whether parents, businesses or non-profits, and think about how their messaging fits (or doesn't) these groups ways of thinking about the world.

Oftentimes, educators fail to think about how they frame the world, much like most of us fail to recognize what is "normal" for us like the types of food we eat for breakfast or where to put our shoes when we enter someone's house. If a newsletter home to parents frames a problem - say, how to improve children's dietary habits - in a top-down manner that ignores different religious, cultural, or political beliefs and values around food (e.g., militant veganism), then it is less likely that message will be well received. Benford and Snow call this "strategic fitting" of frame to culture, and it's something that can be applied to a wide range of fields and activities.

As I was reading the paper it struck me how applicable this idea is to the growing concern about how to make research applicable and meaningful for policymakers and the public, which is a topic constantly on my mind as our skills gap book is about to be released, and I delve into new studies on skills problems across the US and in China. Our problems isn't salience of the topic - because everybody and their dog is talking about 21st century skills and jobs and relevance of liberal arts degrees - but it's communicating in a succinct and meaningful way our findings, which like many scientists we claim are simply too complicated to convey in a sound bite, a 140 character tweet, a blog post.

And that is true. One of the pernicious aspects of the skills gap idea is its brevity and intuitive appeal. Our findings show that instead of hiring problems and sluggish job growth simply and solely being attributed to colleges and universities that are poorly "aligned" with workforce needs, its a much more complicated situation that implicates hiring policies, parenting styles, macroeconomic trends, teaching practices, career counseling and on and on. Presenting graphics of what we've called the "skills infrastructure," which is a tangled web of boxes and arrows, is a guarantee to glaze eyes over, encourage smartphone browsing, and to generally lose interest.

So the questions for my summer are these: How to convey that in a way that fits the frame of state legislators in Wisconsin who have slashed $500 million from public higher education in the last two budgets? How to communicate this to parents and teachers who are barraged by messages about the pricetag of college and worry about robots taking over our jobs? What is clear is these concerns - about student debt and the future labor market - have to be addressed up front for both policymakers and the general public. It is a common point of entry that will get people listening for another minute, reading for one more paragraph. But distilling our findings down to 3 key nuggets is another problem altogether. I think I can get people in the door, but then what?

Figuring out how to frame our research in a way that honors the science but reaches the audiences it needs to is becoming one of my obsessions, partly due to the feeling that I owe it to the taxpayers who fund my research to get the findings out there, but mostly because I know the results have a contribution to make to discussions about higher education and jobs that are often too narrowly defined and short-sighted.


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© 2015 by Matthew T. Hora

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