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Translating science into stories that matter: The tale of Early Childhood Development

- Deborah Minors

Research into public understanding of Early Childhood Development (ECD) compared to the actual science has informed SA’s ECD policy, which Wits helped draft.

Dr Eric Lindland is a cognitive anthropologist whose research focuses on how metaphors are used in language, symbolism and ethics to bridge meanings across cultural systems.  Lindland is a fellow of the Frameworks Institute, a communications research institution that helps the public understand social issues like early child development.

“The Institute’s mission is to advance the non-profit sector’s communications capacity. It’s a ‘translation organisation’ that helps to frame the public discourse about social problems,” says Lindland.

Lindland delivered a public lecture entitled Communications Strategies for Social Change at the School of Public Health at Wits on Friday, 1 July 2016. He shared the methodology that a he and a team from Wits, the University of Stellenbosch, and UNICEF used to research South Africans’ understanding of ECD. 

The methodology explores the perception gap between what the experts say on a social matter (in this case, ECD) and what the public hears. The methodology uses culturally accessible metaphors to enhance communication and understanding. Understanding cultural perceptions is at the heart of re-framing perceptions.

Cognitive shortcuts and cultural models

“Human beings don’t come to the world as naïve blank slates, but rather as experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception.  People’s brains are not a fishbowl you can drop something into. Rather, people’s brains are a rich, complex ecosystem – like a wetlands where there’s a lot going on,” says Lindland.

The ecosystem of the mind contains ’cultural models’ – cognitive shortcuts we create through years of experience. Cultural models are not unique; they are shared by human beings. Religion is one, for example.  We rely on these models to make sense of the world.

Cultural models can be problematic or advantageous.  Just as a communications message risks being consumed by ‘dangerous animals’ [prejudicial cultural models] in the wetlands of the mind, there are also positive cultural models that provide strategic advantage to communicators.

“If we don’t know what the cultural models are, we don’t know how people will interpret our message,” said Lindland. “Knowing the models enables the message to be framed effectively.”

The Frameworks methodology was used to guide research conducted by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits, in partnership with stakeholders in government and civil society. The research will inform the messages to be used when implementing the South African National Early Childhood Development Policy. Professor Linda Richter is the Director of the Centre of Human Development and the lead author of the national ECD policy.

Richter’s research interest is in life-course human development issues, concentrating mainly on infancy and early childhood.  As lead author of the national ECD policy, she had to identify the core scientific principles that South African ECD experts want to communicate to the public.

South African ECD stories

“What is the story about children’s development that needs to be told in South Africa? There is a big gap between policy makers and the public understanding of ECD,” says Richter. “Consider the discovery of Homo naledi, which turned into a racial issue. That led to the Department of Science and Technology requiring that a portion of research money be spent on communicating science effectively.”

The Frameworks research comprised expert interviews with ECD professionals and implementers, as well as cultural model interviews with Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa, and isiZulu-speaking South Africans in all nine provinces.  Additionally, on-the-street “vox pop” interviews were conducted in all these languages in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg.

The preliminary research findings reveal both overlaps and incongruities between the science of ECD and public understanding of it. For example, science confirms that key brain development happens between the ages of nought to three years, but the interviews suggest the public think this happens at school-going age.

“The first 1000 days of life, including pregnancy, are the most influential. But among the public there is an issue of ‘aging up’ and a poor understanding of the importance of the early years,” says Lindland.

There are also disparities between the expert view that stimulation, interaction, and communication are fundamental to ECD, whereas the public cite safety, food, and love as paramount.

Lindland says, “Science tells us kids need stimulation and communication. The public doesn’t realise that cognitive development is critical. When South Africans generally think about ECD, they’re focused on love, safety, discipline, and nutrition, but the challenge is what’s not there.”

The preliminary findings reveal other communication anomalies between the expert science of ECD and these respondents’ attitude and understanding of it: 

  • Experts know that a child’s brain and cognition develops early; respondents think primarily in terms of the child’s physical, social, and emotional development
  • Experts recognise that pervasive risk factors, such as maternal depression, threaten a child’s development; respondents think in terms of extreme factors, e.g., rape and human trafficking
  • Experts confirm that children have human rights; those members of the public interviewed, across all languages, think that children have too many rights
  • Experts propose that government empower and enable parents in ECD; these respondents think that the government should provide ECD services directly to children and families
  • Experts think that physical punishment is harmful to young children, who learn better from guidance, explanation and distraction; many members of the people believe that all children need to be spanked to learn not to do certain things.

On the same page

There are some ways, however, where ECD experts and the public are on the same page. These initial findings suggest that South Africans, like the experts, recognise that ECD is foundational and that a child’s environment and access to quality services impact development. The findings suggest that experts and the public agree children’s development matters because a good society depends upon it, and that government should play a role.

The Frameworks research will help frame the story of ECD in South Africa in response to the cultural models that inform it. Ultimately the findings will guide strategies that can build communications bridges between the science of ECD and the public’s understanding and acceptance of it. And if you can change understanding, you can change policy.

“We need to make the science of ECD a story that people in South Africa feel invested in. This research explores the stories [cultural models] that exist about ECD in South Africa so that we can see how we can frame our communications in future to make ECD a public issue,” says Richter.