How Americans Think About the World

and Why Education Matters

International education is arguably the greatest long-term investment a country can make to ensure a strong economic future.
International education is arguably the greatest long-term investment a country can make to ensure a strong economic future.

Scholars of social movements offer important advice for those who would attempt to catapult international education onto the nation’s policy agenda: “There is no such thing as a social problem, until enough people, with enough power in the society, agree that there is. Social problems are produced by public opinion, not by particular social conditions, undesirable or otherwise.” [1]

Taken in this light, the fact that student knowledge of the world is demonstrably inadequate or that fewer than 40,000 American students study Chinese is unlikely to result in a widespread call for education reform. And, despite the fact that policy leaders in government and business have publicly expressed their concern about “educational isolationism,” elite opinion in itself is insufficient to propel the changes that are necessary to transform the curriculum. That will depend on the reactions of constituents and of influential individuals who must weigh international education against other priorities.

The challenge for those who would advance internationalizing the American curriculum as an important public goal lies in helping opinion leaders engage citizens in the issue in a way that makes vivid the transformative power of the educational changes proposed. At the same time, educators and opinion leaders must anticipate and avoid unproductive habits of thinking that are likely to derail public understanding. The public has a lot on its mind just now, from jobs and health care to “failing” schools and terrorist threats. Without a clear and well-stated message about the importance and promise of international education, this issue is unlikely to attach itself to other public goals that Americans are eager to address.

The findings reported here come from an admittedly small sample of research projects on international education conducted by the FrameWorks Institute. FrameWorks tested the factual knowledge of 20 average citizens in Colorado and Connecticut and conducted two focus groups in North Carolina. However, this body of work is amplified dramatically by FrameWorks’ multi-year investigation of American attitudes toward international issues in general— funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and others — which consisted of more than a dozen multi-method studies, including two large-scale surveys of public opinion. The following observations are based on work conducted by FrameWorks’ research partners, the think tanks Cultural Logic and Public Knowledge.

Through a Glass Darkly
In a review of previous research on U.S. attitudes toward international education, public opinion expert Meg Bostrom concluded, “In several ways, Americans demonstrate strong support for international education, including foreign language requirements, international education courses, study abroad, and international students on U.S. campuses. However, few say these skills are essential, leaving international education easily displaced by other priorities.” [2] The research by FrameWorks confirms this assessment.

“Framing,” as it is used by FrameWorks researchers, refers to the subtle selection of certain aspects of an issue in order to cue a specific response. As researchers have shown, the way an issue is framed explains who is responsible and suggests potential solutions conve yed by images, stereotypes, messengers, and metaphors. The advantage of “strategic frame analysis” is that it allows researchers to document and deconstruct the frames currently in the public consciousness and to understand their impact on public policy preferences.

Perhaps the most important finding in Frame- Works’ research is the lack of a well-defined public vision or definition of international education. The topic simply does not bring up powerful or specific associations for people. While this fact means that advocates need not fight an uphill battle to dislodge erroneous images, it also leaves international education prey to default patterns of thinking that come into play precisely because the public has little sense of the issue. Put another way, when people lack a vivid, available image of an issue, they reach for the next best thing, any association that can help them reason about the issue. [3] In this case, international education is quickly defined by such narrow associations as language study or geography. Alternatively, international education is sometimes defined as “everything but” American history and English. In either case, the definition does little to advance a new story about how Americans might learn to engage with the world.

Even more problematic, these default associations are likely to connect the issue of international education to current public opinion about American education generally, rather than to the need for students to develop a global perspective. This pattern of thinking instantly derails the conversation into a discussion about what the public readily perceives to be the sorry state of the nation’s schools. Such a focus in turn undermines support for any sweeping reforms or additions to the curriculum until the existing education system is “fixed.” In the context of a system that is perceived to be failing at the basics, international education is viewed as a luxury or a set of skills that can be postponed to undergraduate education or assigned to specialists. This assessment is exacerbated by the public’s belief 1) that international education is composed primarily of exotic languages and geographic details with which parents are unfamiliar and 2) that American students are deficient in international “basics,” such as foreign languages and world history.

The sketchy picture of international education held by most Americans is partly a result of the fact that it is perceived to be “all over the map” —an endless list of things students might learn with no endpoint— rather than a basic competency. As scholars affiliated with the think tank Cultural Logic have pointed out, people tend to reason within a “humanities model” in which international education becomes a process of choosing one country at a time and developing an acquaintance with that country. [4] This makes it hard for them to imagine a core curriculum and leaves them skeptical of reforms that appear limitless in their demands on the system.

Current Frames in Play
Current communications practices among international education advocates have been tested in qualitative research. Two of these approaches that appear with some frequency in the field demonstrate the vastly divergent effects of communications on public understanding. [5]

The school solutions frame. This frame is exemplified by the Asia Society’s call to “put the world into worldclass education,” as well as by other reforms that focus on improving the educational vision and process itself. This particular framing is inspiring to people and can help them see the need to update the curriculum to bring it into the 21st century. Moreover, it does this without falling into such traps as the widely held notions that the schools are already broken, that basics have to come before luxuries, and that we must act locally before addressing global needs. To further improve on this way of framing the issue, specific examples of school systems that are undertaking global curricula should help move the public into a “solutions mindset” rather than a “problems mindset.” By painting a vivid picture of what happens in these schools and classes and how it was achieved, advocates can begin the necessary task of defining international education in the public mind.

The knowledge gap frame. By contrast, framing the issue in terms of a knowledge gap defines the learner as deficient. Moreover, it defines international education as being “about” success and qualifications. This frame often appears in the context of questions about whether American students and teachers are able to locate the world’s countries, capitals, and major geographic features. The public response is generally something like, “They can’t even find India on a map.”

However, reminding people of student deficiencies is likely to lead to them to construct a script in which the “basics” come first and knowledge of one’s own country comes before knowledge of foreign cultures. Indeed, the public can easily explain away the knowledge gap by asserting that Americans have enough challenges in their education system already and shouldn't undertake new problems until more progress has been made on the old ones. The fact that the public perceives international education as an infinite number of specific facts leads many Americans to conclude that we will never be proficient in this area. Thus we tend refocus on those areas where change seems possible, say, improving reading test scores in grade schools.

Telling a Story the Public can Hear
It is difficult to inspire people to want better international education when they lack a concrete image of what is being proposed. The paucity of vivid images associated with international education requires that advocates take immediate steps to fix the topic in the public’s imagination and to avoid allowing understanding to default to foreign language and geography.

The critical next step for reform proponents is to make global education come alive in the public mind. By exposing people to multiple examples of imaginative programs across the disciplines, advocates can begin to overcome the biggest obstacle to change: the shallow and sketchy perceptions of international education that easily default to problematic interpretations.

In making the issue vivid, it is also important to define international education in terms of people’s existing educational values — to emphasize critical thinking and respect for other cultures. As FrameWorks research partner Public Knowledge concluded from the focus groups:

Advocates need to create a conversation that links to the priorities people already have for the public education system, rather than one that tries to create a new priority. The public wants education to provide opportunity; to teach children how to understand, respect, and value others; to develop good citizens; and to prepare children for success in the workplace. Advocates need to communicate that achieving these objectives in an increasingly interdependent world requires updating the public education system to incorporate a global perspective. When approached in this way, international education is not a separate priority. Rather, it is inherent in the definition of a world-class education. [6]

The entire body of communications research conducted by the FrameWorks Institute strongly suggests that global education should be “about” improving the quality of teaching; getting values of mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation across cultures into the curriculum; and inspiring students’ curiosity to explore beyond their borders and boundaries. The frames that worked best in the focus groups were those that inspired a positive vision of what we could be, not those that narrowly addressed problems we have experienced. The FrameWorks research concludes that the argument for international education needs to be changed to tell a different story about the world, about Americans’ role in it, and about the opportunities for today’s students. The vision of global education should be seen as transformative, not merely additive. Only then can proponents of international education count on a positive public reception for specific policy proposals for reform.

This article was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan (November 2004). Reprinted with permission.

Author: Susan Nall Bales is president of FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, which conducts communications research on social issues. She is a visiting scholar at Brandeis University’s Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management, Waltham, MA.


1 Armand L. Mauss and Julie Camille Wolfe, This Land of Promises: The Rise and Fall of Social Problems in America, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977), 2.

2 Meg Bostrom, “Building Bridges, or Fences?: Perceptions of America’s Role in the World Community,” Public Knowledge, for FrameWorks Institute, Washington, D.C., June 2003, 39-40.

3 For more about how people process information, see Susan Nall Bales and Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., “Communications for Social Good,” Practice Matters: The Improving Philanthropy Project, The Foundation Center, 2004. [see full report] .

4 Axel Aubrun and Joseph Grady, with Jeffrey Snodgrass, “Global Systems and Global Education,” Cultural Logic, for FrameWorks Institute, Washington, D.C., November 2003.

5 For more on alternative frames and their effects, see Susan Nall Bales, “Making the Case for International Education: A FrameWorks Message Memo,” FrameWorks Institute, Washington, D.C., January 2004.

6. Meg Bostrom, “Creating World-Class Education: An Analysis of Qualitative Research Exploring Views of International Education,” Public Knowledge, for FrameWorks Institute, Washington, D.C., November 2003.