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Below is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Aleta: Welcome, Trabian!
Trabian: Hey, my pleasure to be here. Thanks a lot.
Aleta: Trabian, I’ve known you for years. We’re both Ashoka Fellows, and we’ve known each other for a long time. But I was really inspired to write about asset-framing in Hooray for Monday, Inspired Teaching’s weekly blog and podcast, and free resources for tips and tools to support excellent teaching. After hearing an interview with you on this topic, I was so inspired by your words on defining people by their aspirations and contributions rather than their challenges.
And this is so important, especially for young people, especially at a time when we who lead schools and teach in schools are very focused, understandably, on making sure that our students don’t fall behind in reading. Or, if they have fallen behind, that we help them catch up in reading and math and social skills. We can get very focused on the deficits, on what our students are lacking.
And asset-framing can either not be on our radars or seem like we don’t have time for that. We got to plug the holes. We want to hear from you: For the teachers and school leaders and district leaders who are listening today, how can asset-framing help us, even when we feel like we don’t have time for that?
Trabian: Sure. So thanks for that lead-in. First of all, I teach asset-framing to heads of major foundations, corporations, associations around the world. And the reason why I think there’s so much attraction to it is that asset-framing is not about any particular moral stance. It’s not about how to be kinder or nicer or any of those things that are just driven by the goodness of your nature. Asset-framing is rooted in cognitive science.
So what we discovered was – I didn’t discover it, Daniel Kahneman and other Nobel Laureates who work in cognitive science – what they discovered was, human beings cannot be data-driven. It’s something we are literally incapable of. What we are is narrative-driven. Our mental models tell us which data to pay attention to, which information matters, and which information doesn’t. So if you understand that in reality, we only measure the data that our mental model tells us matters, then we’re not data-driven. We are narrative-driven. The narrative matters more than the facts because the narrative tells you which facts to pay attention to.
So if you understand that, then the question is: which narratives are we operating out of? What are our mental models, right? Becomes hugely important because we literally see what we look for. Human beings literally see what we look for. So asset-framing is about the cognitive science of our social behaviors, right? Now, if we understand that, then what we realized is when your associations, when the narratives that are most easily accessible by your mind, are primarily negative ones, then you innately treat whoever’s at the center of that narrative as threatening. It is not a decision. It is not a choice.
It is a physiological response to something where the threat value or the negative value or the potential problem value is easy for your brain to recall. When that happens, your body says, oh, what can I do to avoid this threat? What can I do to reduce this threat? What can I do to eliminate this threat? We call it avoid, control, kill. And this shows up in all kinds of issues across human beings.
But when you think about how we relate to our children, if what we know about our children, if we prime our mind right, the first thing that comes to our mind is something about a gap, a deficit of failing, a lack, a need, an inability. If those are the first things that come to our mind, we don’t code that child as familiar as one of us. We code that child as potential problem or current problem.
And so we must first address their problematic nature before we can make them one of us, which means our relationship to them is actually – it’s the same relationship you have when you discover a spider crawling on your floor. That’s actually the initial shock, is, oh, spider! We got to do something about the spider, right? And so you can avoid the spider. You control the spider. You can kill the spider, right? But you have to address the spider first before you can think about anything else.
And so what the science shows us is when you relate to people that way, you get a certain level of response. When you relate to them first by their aspiration, their contribution, these things that remind you innately that they are a human being, that they are one of us, they’re familiar, then you see different opportunities, you see different options, right?
So I think the reason so many social impact firms and major foundations and these international associations, the reason why they’re trying to figure out how to center asset-framing in their work is not out of any sense of moral justice. It’s more because they recognize it helps them make better decisions. Our clients raise more money than folks who don’t know how to asset-frame. The folks who are working in social impact work, they change bigger laws.
One of our members changed the Florida Constitution using a campaign that is asset-framing, right? They identified different policy platforms and initiatives that could be enacted that actually build more than fix. And so it’s a more effective way of engaging, raising money, having social impact, persuading the public. But we haven’t been taught how to do it.
No, I want to think about this. I can imagine some of our listeners, particularly classroom teachers, are thinking, so you’re not saying I ignore the fact that perhaps a child is two years behind grade level in reading. I do acknowledge that, but that’s not my starting point.
So let’s do this quickly. So asset-framing says again, we’re mental-model-driven. So if all you know about or what you primarily know about a person is negative, then your primary response to them is negative. It has nothing to do with choice. It happens.
Aleta: It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It’s just the way the brain works.
Trabian: Like literally. In fact, what I teach in the course is about your brain and your central nervous system. They connect right here, right at the brain stem. Okay? So it’s one system. It’s not two separate systems. The way our brain works is the same way our central nervous system is: always on. It’s always firing, it’s always connecting. Right? It’s always picking up sensation. And there’s a part of your brain that is always synthesizing those sensations into perspectives. That’s always going on. It’s faster than thought.
The reason that we say we have a gut reaction is because our brain and our bodies are connected. Right? And so the point being, when you encounter something that scares you, you don’t have to think about it scaring you. It happens like that instantly. And the degree of threat determines whether it shows up on your face or not. But the point is, if we’re priming people with essentially fear triggers, then we’re going to have essentially fear reactions to them. You don’t get a chance to think your way out of that one. That’s autonomic.
What we try to help people understand is giving your brain fuller narratives gives it a chance to respond better. And when you prime, when you start with affirming narratives, then your brain is primed to see them as valuable. Whereas when you start with deficit narratives, your brain is primed to see them as a problem.
Aleta: So it sounds like if I’m the teacher of fourth-grade students, when I begin the year, I’m going to see those young people’s reading scores and math scores. And that’s okay, but it may not be what I would hope them to be. So often in schools, we operate from a place of urgency. But I would argue it can slip into panic, which is not where most of us do our best work, as you’re describing.
So if I start from a place of urgency, panic, it’s day one. Trabian, you’re behind in reading. We’re going to get your reading scores up. I’ve missed the opportunity to get to know you as a full person. I’ve missed the opportunity to teach my brain to see you as, frankly, an asset rather than a deficit. And I’m not going to be as effective at teaching you how to read or do math or anything else if I haven’t done that asset frame.
Trabian: That’s right. And where I would connect the dots on what you’re saying is: Even more importantly than seeing the child as an asset, what you want to trigger for the brain-body is that the child is one of us, right? A familiar: he or she is part of the tribe. They are part of the tribe. So if you can trigger for your mind that they are one of us, then you will treat them as one of us instead of as a potential problem. Mary Wright used to point out that in the various organizations connected to the Children’s Defense Fund, she could always tell the orientation of the group by whether their written materials talked about the children’s needs and whether it talked about our children’s needs. Right?
And so the point being, what you really want to do in terms of wiring your body to have the right set of responses is to define them by their aspirations and contributions, because that’s what helps you to see them as one of us
Aleta: I love that. And when we work with teachers at Inspired Teaching, we talk about thinking about our students as partners in learning rather than adversaries. And while that sounds ridiculous, in fact, it often happens in school, especially around social-emotional learning and discipline. I make the rules, and I know you’re going to try to break them. You’re going to try to get past me, and I’m going to try to stop you. And one of the things that we say to teachers is, if it’s you against 30 teenagers, you will not win, first of all, just on a practical level, or 30 5-year-olds or anybody. And second of all, why would we want to go to school in a place where we feel we’re spending the day with our adversaries? We want to be partners and we all want the same thing. We all want our children to learn and we want them to thrive. So seeing our children as us, not them, I think, is so valuable and so important.
Trabian: Let me share something else I think is hugely important, which you mentioned earlier. We don’t want to ignore low reading scores. We don’t want to ignore the challenges that the students face. We don’t want to ignore all the difficulties that might go into teaching them. But the big thing is not to ignore those characteristics, but not to define people by those characteristics. Yes, they can have all these challenges, but is that what defines who they are? Is that what motivates them? Is that what gets them up in the morning? Is that what they care about? Because if it’s not, then you’re relating to them by something that actually is hurtful, fearful, challenging, et cetera.
What you’re really trying to do is get them to realize their aspirations. If you know what their aspirations are, just like you pointed out. If you know what they’re curious about, if you know what they want to know about, if you know those things, you can help them get those things that they really value. But if you don’t bother to assess those things, if all you know are the negatives, then you can’t engage them at who they really are, right?
And so a simple data point around that, because we work with a lot of different shops and we point out: remember how I said your narrative tells you which facts to pay attention to? I’ve worked with a lot of educators, and I’ll ask them, have you heard the narrative that in some of our cities, the black and Latino students are dropping out of alarming rates? The dropout factories narrative? Have you heard the poverty numbers? Of course, everybody’s heard that. And then I just go to the other side of the equation, okay? For those of you who are familiar with the dropout rates, how familiar are you with the data on how many black and Hispanic kids are in college, have their degrees? Is that data readily available to your mind? Right? Those of you familiar with the dropout rate or the poverty rates, how many black and Latino millionaires are there? Right. Is that data available? Is your brain getting a whole picture of who’s in front of you? Are you super dosed in what’s wrong with them? But you can’t really speak to what’s right with them if your brain doesn’t know that, it can’t be triggered by that, right?
And similarly, you get up in front of a classroom or you’re leading a team of educators. No one ever introduces you on day one by saying, “Next up is Aleta. She used to we went to bed as a child. Her mother was on welfare, and she had a learning disability.” Nobody does that! It would take all your agency from day one, right? Even though I should have given myself as an example, I actually projected my characteristics to make the example. So my mother was on welfare, I went to bed as a child.
But my point is, we don’t do that for a reason. We don’t stand before the room and try to engage you based on what’s wrong for a reason. Right? If you want people to value your thoughts and your input and your ideas, you actually start with why they should. And then you could mention all that other stuff. Secondarily, but that’s the brain science of it. That’s how you engage people.
Aleta: And what you said that was so beautiful is if you want people to value your thoughts and your input and your ideas. And of course, for adults who’ve been named expert like you right, we value your ideas and thought and input. But imagine if we valued the thought and ideas and input of our young people, of our children. At Inspired Teaching, one of our Core Elements that we believe should be present in every classroom is Student as Expert, right? The student is the expert in their life, in their lived experience, and they are the emerging expert in everything that they’re learning. And that kind of flips the dynamic on its head. And we must as adults value the ideas and contributions of our young people if we place them in the role of emerging experts. So that’s such a beautiful thing.
So am I hearing you right? I’m hearing, I think, two things really concrete takeaways for our teachers. One is, ask our kids, “What do you care about? What gets you out of bed?” However we want to ask, formally or informally, “What gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s important to you? What do you aspire to? And what are you good at? What can you contribute?”
And then the other thing I’m hearing is to be very deliberate in surrounding ourselves and educating ourselves with a variety of data points. Sure, look at the problems, but perhaps for every low reading score, look at something that’s going to pull my brain in a different direction. Particularly for Black children or Latino children who there tends to be so much data showing the struggles that they have. Make sure that I, the adult decision-maker, have an equal share of data that helps me realize the potential and the brilliance of my students, or of whatever group of people I’m working with.
Trabian: That’s right. And I’d love to give viewers a specific technique. Because we’re mental-model-driven, you’re better served to construct your model before you encounter the trigger.
All the folks who teach habit change, they point out that you have to have a response to your habit trigger before you encounter the habit trigger. So it’s the same thing, right? So because we’re narrative-driven, there are four questions that you can ask yourself that will help you construct a more holistic mental model about whoever it is we’re applying this to – children. But this works in everything. Like, I invite people to take the 100-day asset-framing challenge. Just practice asset-framing stuff and give your heart a lift.
So the four questions that are great for giving your brain this skill:
Number one, what do you love about whoever’s at the center of the question? This can be people, this can be places, this can be the environment. Literally identifying what is it that you deeply admire and love. And I know that sounds not scientific, but here’s why you do that. You identify what you love because your intuition, the autonomic system is immediate. And so once you trigger feelings of affection, you’re more prone to actually see the positive aspects than if you’ve never bothered to create that priming. Right? So first prime yourself, like, literally: what is your affect for whoever or whatever? And if you can identify something that you love, then you ask the next three questions.
Then you ask, what are their aspirations? Like, what gets them up in the morning? Again, having primed what you love, you will see more aspirations if you hadn’t done the first step. You’ll see more positive things than if you hadn’t done the first step. Right?
So one, what do you really love, admire. Two, what are their aspirations? What are their contributions? And you want to find aspirations, contributions that are kind of tentpoles, like things that really stick out just because that’ll help your brain recall them faster.
Then, third question is: what is obstructing their aspirations? If they want to grow up and contribute meaningfully to society, what is obstructing that? That’s the third question.
Then the fourth question is: what are you going to do to be an asset to them? What are you going to do to help them realize their aspiration? Put yourself – rather than in the role of the hero and the guide, the sort of leader – put yourself in the role of maybe the resource, the asset. How are you going to be an asset to them and their aspiration? Once you figure those things out, it’s a lot easier for your brain.
The right tools, the right methodologies, the right inspirations. But just those four steps make you better able to asset-frame and guide and lead no matter what the question is. Because this is a cognitive tool, at the end of the day.
Aleta: That is a beautiful tool. Thank you. Thank you for sharing it. And we’ll share it with our listeners through many different means. And we’ll share, of course, your website, the BMe Community. Are there other resources we should share with our listeners so that they can take advantage of asset-framing with their students and with their school communities?
Trabian: There are a few people who practice this that you can sort of look at their websites and how they go about it. Donors Choose, which is a great crowdfunding platform for classroom projects. They literally have an instructional guide for teachers who want to post their classroom projects in an asset-framed way. So go check them out.
Groups like the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. Their whole foundation strategy is based on asset-framing. So if you go and look at how they approach their work — and by the way, that’s an organization that for I don’t know how many years they existed before doing this work, but for most of the foundation’s life, they said their mission was to end poverty in Arkansas. Great mission, but a deficit-focused mission. Right? If you look at them now, they talk about how to make an Arkansas where everyone can prosper. That’s their mission now. And all the types of inputs that go along with that are more profound than what they were doing before. Right? So it’s just interesting, like how your scope rises and what is possible dramatically increases. But that’s another example.
My site TrabianShorters.com is the training site. BMeCommunity.org is the leadership community that practices asset-framing. So I welcome you to go to those, and then for those of you who really want to challenge yourselves, go to Assetframingpledge.org, which is a pledge site. I pledge to do certain things. I pledge to reject fear and stigma. And then we can put you in a distribution list where you can get tools and information.
Aleta: Trabian, that’s fantastic. I think every teacher I’ve ever worked with — and I’ve had the pleasure of working with tens of thousands of teachers over the years — every teacher I’ve worked with wants the young people in their class to thrive. But so often as teachers, the role we are placed in is the role of information provider or hole-plugger. We’re just supposed to plug the holes and fix the problems as best we can and pass them along to the next year. And the tools you have offered, both the philosophical mindset and the concrete tools, are really going to help teachers shift their role so that they can be.
I love the way you framed it: The asset. I can be the asset to help the young people in my care to overcome the obstacles to reach their aspirations and make their contributions. And that’s such a vivid and joyful role. Not easy, but teaching is not easy. It’s incredibly challenging, as it should be, but it’s a lovely role.
Trabian: I love that. I also love that you just asset-framed the teachers in your structure that you just did, in case you were wondering. If you play it back, you will see that you define them by their aspiration to make sure children thrive. Pointed out what was blocking that aspiration reaching. Right on.
Hooray For Monday is an award-winning weekly publication by Center for Inspired Teaching, an independent nonprofit organization that invests in and supports teachers. Inspired Teaching provides transformative, improvisation-based professional learning for teachers that is 100% engaging – intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Our mission is to create radical change in the school experience – away from compliance and toward authentic engagement.