Pursue School Improvement Through Persuasion. Not Vilification

I’m working on my new book (tentatively titled The Great School Rethink). It’ll be out next spring from Harvard Education Press and aims to help educational leaders meet the challenges of the post-pandemic landscape. To the surprise of none of my regular readers, I suggest that doing this well is less about “innovation” than helping parents, teachers, and policymakers get comfortable thinking about schooling differently.

That’s a tall order in a world where education reforms routinely crash in the face of reservations, routine, and resistance. Yet, it’s a challenge that educational leaders should be well-equipped to tackle. After all, educators are experienced at helping others see new things, master new ideas, and wrestle with uncomfortable questions.

Unfortunately, the track record when it comes to school change is heavy on haranguing or preaching to the choir and light on persuasion. And it’s no great surprise (especially in a polarized era) that neither haranguing opponents nor talking to the like-minded is likely to change minds or locate common ground.

There are better paths. They start with taking a deep breath and mustering all our patience. After all, research shows that changing minds is always a slog. If parents or teachers have deep-seated notions about how schools should work or what classrooms should look like, it’s always going to be tough to get them comfortable with another tack.

As my old boss, Harvard’s Arthur Brooks has put it, “If you want a chance at changing minds, you need a new strategy: Stop using your values as a weapon and start offering them as a gift.” In fact, researchers have long known that insulting someone in the course of an argument leads them to dig in their heels and oppose you more firmly. This phenomenon even has a name: the “boomerang effect.”

Fight the temptation to shout “you’re wrong!” at doubters and then just repeat your talking points, slower and louder. Instead, try to listen, appreciate the concerns, and invite them in. Rather than approaching school improvement as a morality play, approach the act of persuasion as a chance to more fully think through and explain what you’re doing.

Brooks has known a number of religious missionaries and notes that they routinely have their core beliefs rejected at doorstep after doorstep and yet manage to remain remarkably cheerful. (He tells of the missionary who wryly observed, “No one ever said, ‘Great news: There are missionaries on the porch.’”). Brooks asks, “What explains this apparent dissonance? The answer is that effective missionaries present their beliefs as a gift.”

There are at least three tips that can help with this.

Avoid “othering” others. Ensure that those who disagree or have doubts don’t feel like they’re off the team. If you’re rethinking teacher roles or the use of school time, don’t force those comfortable with the status quo to see themselves as outcasts under siege. Watch your language, keep lines of communication open, and take every opportunity to extend a hand to those who aren’t on board. One benefit of this approach is that it gives you a chance to build trust with your opponents, which can make things easier with time.

Don’t take rejection personally (or as final). Hesitance and reluctance are normal. They’re healthy. If anything, they’re useful warning signs as to where the community really is. Take them that way. A big mistake education reformers have habitually made — in so many efforts like No Child Left Behind or the Common Core — is they ride roughshod over doubts and concerns. Too often, this yields a “with me or against me” mindset, which turns fence-sitting doubters into sworn enemies.

And listen more, much more. One of the things I realized when Pedro Noguera and I wrote our book A Search for Common Ground a few years back is how easy it is to approach conversation mostly as a chance to convince the listener that “I’m right.” It struck me that we too rarely appreciate that the opportunity to listen, by illuminating shared values and perspectives, is what ultimately helps us persuade. In fact, researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley have found that deep listening is more powerful than talking when it comes to changing minds.

One of the great disappointments of my professional life is how frequently champions of educational change seem to imagine that the way to win hearts and minds is to vilify their opponents. Yet, all those efforts — on both left and right — have one thing in common. They haven’t led to much actual change, in public sentiment or in schools. Perhaps it’s a good time to try a different tack.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.