Teaching Opinion

Teachers As “Persuaders": An Interview With Daniel Pink

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 17, 2013 7 min read
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As I mentioned in last week’s post, instead of responding to the “question of the week,” I’m lucky enough to share an interview I did with author Daniel Pink.

Dan’s new best-selling book is titled To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Disclosure: Dan interviewed me -- and my wife, Jan Judson -- for the book, and several quotes from us appear in one of the chapters).

Dan will also be leading a Webinar in April for Education Week on “How Teachers Can ‘Sell’ More to Students.” His Webinar will be the third in a series on “New Strategies to Motivate and Engage Students.” Principal Chris Wejr and I will be leading the first one on March 5th, and it will coincide with the publication of my new book, Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation. Look for an except from it next week in Education Week Teacher.

Interview With Daniel Pink

LF: In your new book, you write that if we’re not actually selling a product in the traditional sense, then we are involved in non-sales selling -- persuading, convincing, influencing.

You suggest that teaching has much in common with this kind of selling. You write:

“To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources -- not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end. That is also what, say, a good algebra teacher does. At the beginning of a term, students don’t know much about the subject. But the teacher works to convince his class to part with resources -- time, attention, effort -- and if they do, they will be better off when the term ends than they were when it began.”

How would you say this perspective fits in with the premise of your last book, Drive, and its emphasis on the importance of helping people develop intrinsic motivation?

Daniel Pink:

It’s totally in synch. In Drive, Edward Deci says something really important -- that we’ve got to get past this idea that motivation is something that one person does to another and begin understanding that it’s something someone does for him or herself. It’s the same in this realm. The most effective forms of persuasion and influence are when the other person comes up with his or her own autonomous, intrinsically motivated reasons for agreeing with you. That’s one reason questions are so effective. They elicit active responses rather than passive ones. The key to selling, in the broad sense of the word, is to create the conditions in which people summon their own self-directed reasons for reaching common ground.

LF: You discuss the importance of “attunement” -- of being able to see another person’s perspective. It seems similar to, or the same as, empathy. I’ve read some suggestions on how we can help young people develop empathy. What are your suggestions of what teachers could do?

Daniel Pink:

The research shows that perspective-taking and empathy are similar -- but not quite the same. Empathy is more about understanding the other person’s emotions -- what he or she is feeling. Perspective-taking is more about understanding the other person’s interests -- what he or she is thinking. Both are important. But the research shows that perspective-taking is slightly more effective in moving others. So while teachers should work to understand their students are feeling, they should also work to understand what they’re thinking -- the reasons they might be opposed to doing something. The story you (Larry) tell in the book about understanding that student’s interests and recasting the writing assignment in that direction is a great example.

LF: You talk about a study where students were asked to look at a variety of objects and choose one that they would then arrange and draw. Some quickly chose one and drew it, while others spent a great deal of time handling all the objects and rearranging them. The researchers suggested that the “first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second group was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?”
You suggest that many professions need more “problem-finders.”

I think many teachers might suggest that much our standardized test-taking culture is not particularly supportive to helping our students develop creativity. In fact, you talk about a survey where school superintendents rate “problem-solving” as the number one quality needed in employees today, while employers ranked it eighth and said that problem identification was number one. Do you have any suggestions on what we can do in the classroom to help our students develop this kind of creativity in the face of this challenge?

Daniel Pink:

This is a huge question. Problem-solving remains an important skill. No doubt about it. But problem-finding is becoming just as important, if not more so. In purely pragmatic terms, if a customer knows exactly what its problem is, it can probably find the solution on its own. It doesn’t need you. But where you’re enormously valuable is when the customer doesn’t know what its problem is, or is wrong about its problem. There you can make a big difference -- by identifying problems the customer doesn’t realize that it has, surfacing latent problems, and looking down the road to anticipate problems that haven’t yet arrived.

Of course, standardized test have little to do with problem-finding -- and at some level, not all that much to do with problem-solving either. But how to develop problem-finding capacity in our kids is difficult. I don’t’ have any easy answers. But a few steps could likely help. For instance, breaking the boundary between school and the world -- by tackling not hermetically sealed school problems but examining real issues in a students’ community. It could mean giving students more say over what they study. It probably means a more multi-disciplinary approach -- because often what seems like, say, an engineering problem is really or political or economic or behavioral challenge. But again, there are no easy answers here. My guess is that great teachers are doing lots of cool things on this front that are worth disseminating and, if possible, scaling.

LF: You talk about “elasticity” in the sense that -- in regarding to sales -- it’s everybody’s job. One of the examples you give is in the software industry where engineers and computer scientists are often constantly in the field dealing with customers.

In schools, many would also say that it’s everybody’s -- teachers, administrators, district office staff, for-profit vendors, etc. -- job is to help students learn. “For the children” is the common refrain. But in our situation, many of us are “selling” life-long learning while others are selling data-driven increased test scores.

What do you do in situation where there is no common agreement on what the sales “product” is?

Daniel Pink:

That’s not really a question about elasticity. It’s a question about purpose. Forget selling for a moment. What you’re asking, in some sense, is “What’s the point of the exercise?” I think the people who are pushing for higher test scores are well-intentioned. But IMHO, they haven’t fully examined the deeper issue of whether test scores reflect actual, enduring learning. I’d encourage everyone on both sides of the issue to read Carol Dweck’s work and understand the difference between learning goals and performance goals. There’s a pile of evidence showing that pursuing learning goals can often lead to reaching performance goals -- but the same isn’t necessarily true of the reverse. Hitting performance goals often has little connection to achieving learning goals -- especially over the long haul. This question is much like your previous one. It’s a central question about the nature of education in this country.

LF: Is there anything else you’d like to share from your book, and that you learned in writing it, that might be particularly applicable to educators?

Daniel Pink:

I’d re-emphasize the importance of understanding that persuading and pitching is less about a teacher flipping a student’s switch than it is about creating the conditions where self-directed students can flip their own switches and know why they’re doing it. Also, the lessons in the buoyancy chapter -- about staying afloat in an “ocean of rejection” -- might be especially useful given the pounding teachers have taken lately.

Thanks, Dan!

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