How to Change Minds – Narrative and the Art of Persuasion

The longer I work in education the more I understand what a political football it is. Almost everyone in the community is somehow invested in the education, whether simply because their tax dollars help to fund it, or because they or their family members are directly involved in it as students, teachers, support staff, policy makers or in other roles. It’s one of the five major social institutions.

With so many people invested, either directly or indirectly, its no surprise that there are strong and opposing views about education, with everyone thinking that their position is the right one.

In Australia we have had a huge debate about the education funding model for schools. All around the western world there seems to be debates about school reform and about teacher quality. We take our positions and we seek to persuade others, seizing what ever evidence we can that will prove our point. We love to use data and quote research that proves beyond doubt that our view of education is correct. We sometimes  feel like tearing out our hair in frustration that those who oppose us ignore the evidence in front of them and seem to dig even further into their position. Different sides accuse each other of cherry picking the research to support their own bias, and each will produce credible data to support their opposing points of views.

These sorts of debates around education reform have been going on for years, and I’m yet to see too many people shift from their original position. But still we try to convince each other.

It’s not working, and it’s not likely to work.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  So perhaps, we need to consider a different approach.

Last year I came across some interesting articles about the backfire effect. A research project at The University of Michigan showed that when people have beliefs and then are presented with evidence to convince them their original beliefs  are incorrect, they become even more entrenched in their position. Arguing with evidence backfires, hence the name.

It’s related to confirmation bias, which I am guilty of myself. As soon as I come across evidence that my position is correct, I find it credible, whereas I will pick apart any evidence that suggests I am wrong.

So what really convinces people?

When I reflect on what convinces me to at least consider another position on an issue that I feel strongly about, the first thing that comes to mind is credibility.

If the person expressing the alternative view is a person whom I trust, and respect or see as credible in their field, I am more inclined to consider their point of view. I was, for example, very skeptical about the use of BYOD in public schools due to the equity concerns that it immediately raises.  However, I have come across enough public school educators with a heart for social justice who are open to the idea of BYOD, that I’ve found myself shifting my position and being able to examine it with less bias.

Narratives also help change my mind. I don’t care how much data you showed me to ‘prove’ that smaller class sizes don’t make any difference in the quality of a child’s education. However, if you were to tell me a story of how a teacher of a large class, let’s say of 40 kindergarteners, was able to be more effective than the teacher of a class of 20, then I’d start to open my mind again. (So far no one has been able to share a story like that, and despite how people like to quote Hattie’s research into the effect size of class sizes, I remain firm in the belief that in Kindergarten, 20 is plenty.)

My message to you is this. When you read research and articles that you don’t agree with, take a step back and see if you can avoid the natural tendency to reject it outright. And when trying to convince others, be kind to yourself and perhaps find a different approach. Rather than trying to convince the strongly opposed using data, save that for people who are genuinely interested and perhaps sitting on the fence. Build your professional reputation and become someone who is credible and worth listening to, and find those opportunities to tell stories. We don’t often remember sets of data, but narratives we can relate to.  Stories resonate and stay with us for a long time.


2 thoughts on “How to Change Minds – Narrative and the Art of Persuasion

  1. Greg Maybury says:

    Corrine, On the money commentary. You may find my last post also of interest (see link above), as it reflects on similar themes in regard to the debate about education reform (or for that matter, any other reform agenda/debate). Here is a quick summary.

    – people are motivated to accept accounts that fit their pre-existing convictions; acceptance of competing claims make them feel worse;
    – (cognitive) dissonance is eliminated when we blind ourselves to contradictory propositions; we are prepped to pay a high price to preserve our cherished ideas;
    – moral hypocrisy is a deep part of our nature; the tendency to judge others more harshly for some moral infraction than we judge ourselves;
    – we are often confident when we are wrong; declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in the mind, not necessarily that the story is true;
    – certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how one’s proves their identity; the truth is that our minds just aren’t set up to be changed by mere evidence;
    – groupthink leads to many problems of defective decision making, including incomplete survey of alternative and objectives, failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice, poor information search, selective bias in assessing information, and failure to assess alternatives.

    Ed. Note: we’d argue groupthink also might involve ignoring or not even recognising there is a problem.)

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