GUEST POST: Framing Effects in the Classroom - What can Teachers Learn from Politicians?

GUEST POST: Framing Effects in the Classroom - What can Teachers Learn from Politicians?

By: Eric Kalenze

Eric is an educator and author based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro. He has written a book on education practice and reform, and his blog can be found here.

Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, I read pretty well everything I could get my hands on in an attempt to understand why the American electorate was buying into his rhetoric. The element of the Bush administration I became most fascinated with was its message/communications machine. It seemed to play such a crucial role in all the political matters I was frustrated with, after all; and it was so damned successful somehow that I was hungry to know more about how it was doing what it was doing. Unlike typical ‘spin doctors’, Bush’s message guys weren’t out to fix anything broken. Rather, they sought to alter humans’ behaviors—even get said humans to act against what they considered to be their values. As much as this disgusted me on one hand (I was on the side that was getting creamed, after all), learning about it at least brought many of my political frustrations into sharper focus. And, I had to admit...whatever these guys were doing presented some great potential for my job at the time: teaching high school English.

High challenge, high motivation: Is it even possible?

My personal experiences had informed me well about academic and non-academic expectations in the post-secondary world. And though I won’t pretend I was yet regularly engaging with education research back then, I did know a thing or two about what longitudinal research had said about academic intensity and successful post-secondary study (1) and what scholars like E.D. Hirsch had reported about background knowledge’s relationship to effective reading comprehension and institutional participation (2). If I was truly committed to my students’ success beyond my class, I told myself, it was essential that I stay firm on these levels of challenge.

Still, though, I needed some help with activating students’ motivation to perform the tasks I was designing. I decided right then that I had to read more about the Bush noise machine’s language know-how and strategies, and I had to figure out how my own classroom could feature it. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t into controlling my students’ minds. But I had to be real with myself on the motivation question. However good I may have been getting at creating ‘desirable difficulties’, and however confident I was in my justifications for creating them, no quantities or qualities of my rational arguments were bound to go very far on their own.

Could political strategists provide me with the help I needed? The words they choose and combine are structured deliberately to find voters’ emotions, not reason. See, for instance, Frank Luntz, one of the aforementioned message masterminds, in a 2004 interview with PBS’s ‘Frontline’:

“It's all emotion. […] We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind.” (3)

Luckily, I happened upon Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, by cognitive linguist George Lakoff (4). Intended as a strategy manual for political progressives in the debate environment so re-defined by the right, this book both (a) described how and why the right’s methods worked so well and (b) suggested a means for creating similarly effective methods shaped to any envisioned outcome or set of audience attitudes.

In this book, Lakoff explained that strategists, like Luntz above, are expert with framing effects, or the way differences in linguistic presentation evoke various psychological reactions (5). The book described how framing works to me in simple terms, and it brought those workings to life with walked-through illustrations of phrases like ‘tax relief’—how it differs from ‘tax cuts’ in the psychological effects it creates, the motives behind its construction/adoption, and so forth.

Now this, I had to use.

Take it from the politicians: Frame it right, and they’ll follow

Guided by Lakoff’s recommendations, I became much more aware of how I framed pretty much everything—every assignment, every choice of text, every classroom policy, all of it. In fact, over time I found myself starting my planning with how I was going to frame for kids’ motivation. This was a powerful shift for me in that it aided me in selecting the best possible practice opportunities, discussion-steering prompts, and on and on. In other words: by being more intentional with my framing, I was finally able to both dial learning activities to students’ ‘right-now’ interests and maintain my uncompromised learning activities’ challenge-levels.

I can’t say it got all kids motivated all the time, but I saw some remarkable changes. Kids regularly wrote in their journals about how happy they were to be reading a more challenging selection than their friends in other teachers’ classes, for example, and I saw surprising developments in classroom management issues when I’d react to incidents in ‘frame language’ as opposed to ‘stop-that-behavior language’.

Though there’s not enough space here to cover all the specifics of my own classroom re-framing, I’m happy to continue the discussion with anyone reading who might be interested (here in the comments, or on Twitter). The framing effect is a powerful cognitive bias, and it’s one that doesn’t take much additional effort to improve on. For research on basic principles of framing and their impact on decision-making, a good place to start would be ‘The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice’, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s 1981 study on the effect (6). For suggestions of additional studies and to see the framing effect examined with regard to choosing appropriate educational initiatives, see Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts? - particularly chapter one, ‘Why Smart People Believe Dumb Things’ (5).

When you’re ready to incorporate more purposeful framing into your classroom operations, remember to keep Lakoff’s four ‘really important guidelines’…

Show respect

Respond by reframing

Think and talk at the level of values

Say what you believe

…in mind. Minding how you frame your instruction might  your kids’ motivation to learn without them ever realizing it.


(1) Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the tool box: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor's degree attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

(2) Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know, Rev. ed. New York: Random House.

(3) "Interview Frank Luntz". PBS Frontline., Retrieved 6 June, 2016.

(4) Lakoff, G. (2004). Don't think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

 (5) Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts? How to tell good science from bad in education. John Wiley & Sons.

(6) Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.