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Psst, Dan Pink, Educators Don't Sell, They Engage Psst, Dan Pink, Educators Don't Sell, They Engage

Psst, Dan Pink, Educators Don't Sell, They Engage

by Chris Thinnes
December 19, 2013


There is nothing in 5,000 years of economic history to justify
the belief that human societies should structure their behavior around the demands of the marketplace. - Chris Hedges

Tom Whitby—unassailably seminal connected educator, and spectacularly prolific and insightful blogger—recently shared Daniel Pink's response to a series of questions based on Whitby's reading of Pink's latest release: To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. And something in me snapped.

That I had a weirdly emotional reaction to the post—conditioned, no doubt, by a chorus of highly visible, and primarily self-styled virtuosos in the mainstream press who restlessly, recklessly, and willfully foist the "logic" of "free markets" and the language of "buying" and "selling" onto the wholly unrelated discourse of teaching and learning—suggests I might not be fair, either in my reading or in this post, to Pink’s or Whitby’s original representations—and that, no doubt, you should probably read and reflect on the post yourself—"My Q-and-A with author Dan Pink: Using motivational questioning and more in the classroom"—on Whitby's important blog.

The exchange begins with Whitby's prompt to Pink: "You say that today, like it or not, we're all salespeople. Is that true even of teachers?" Pink responds:

On the first question, the answer is "yes." When you look at what white-collar actually do each day [sic], it turns out they spend a huge portion of their time persuading, influencing, and convincing others. It's what I call "non-sales selling" or "moving" others. Money isn't changing hands. The cash register isn't ringing. And the transaction isn't denominated in dollars, but in time, effort, attention, energy commitment and so on.

This is what teachers do much of their day. Think about, for instance, what 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 or 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.

Later in the post, Whitby invites Pink to explain his view on the changing notion of market transactions: "What are the underlying principles of this new approach to selling—whether you're selling your product, your idea, or yourself?"

Pink explains:

There is a rich body of research—in psychology, economics, linguistics, and cognitive science – that reveals some systematic ways to become more effective in moving others on a remade terrain of information parity. The old ABC's of sales were Always Be Closing. The new ABC’s of Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity. These three qualities are the platform for effectiveness. Attunement is perspective-taking. Can you get out of your own head and see another's—a student’s, a colleague’s, a parent’s—perspective.

I explored my concerns about "The Abuse & Internalization of the Free Market Model in Education" some time ago: for reasons I explore in that post, I was left in this case convinced that Pink’s conceit is little more than a new band’s cover version of an old tune that Duncan, Friedman, Klein, and other Top 40 "artists" have been playing for years. Inspired by a comment by Mike Thayer ("Does it bother anyone, at all, that business-speak, marketing-speak, and sales-speak is becoming so insidiously pushed into education?"), here's how I managed to comment on the post:

While I genuinely appreciate your outreach to Dan Pink, and your sharing his ideas with your blog's readers, I'm left only with this impression: that nobody is working harder than Dan Pink—except, perhaps, Tom Friedman—to foist clunky market metaphors on the discourse of teaching and learning. He is obviously brilliant and well-meaning, and highly influential, but that doesn't make him "right" or helpful, except to the narrowest subset of educators starved for new metaphors, and willing to settle for this one.

As an educator I resent the suggestion that I'm in the business of "selling," whether or not "selling" or "the world" have changed in the ways— eputedly and duplicitously, in the first case, and obviously and tiresomely, in the second—that Pink suggests. Educators worth their salt don't need to "persuade" or to "sell" so much as they need to "engage," and to "hear," and to "give."

As a parent I am incensed that anyone should be invited to misunderstand my child as someone to whom ideas or skills need to be "sold"—whether or not the coercion is of this gentler, kinder version (hah!) or not.

And as a citizen I reject the notion that that "buying" and "selling" are primarily driven by empathy, or "attunement," regardless of Pink’s claims to the contrary: that is simply, and factually, incorrect.

As Mike Thayer intimates in a previous comment, I am also stumped by our collective desperation as educators not just to ogle, but to distribute, the neoliberal smut peddled by Pink, Friedman, and others of their ilk. I don't think it’s Dan Pink's intent, and I'm certain it's not yours—but this is demeaning to children, to teachers, and to our schools.

What do you think? Am I missing something? Is it conceivable that Dan Pink isn't reifying a market-based model of teaching and learning, but trying rather artfully (and radically) to reclaim and to reconstruct the language of "buying" and "selling" to relieve this harmful notion of its power? Should I pause before I press the "Post Comment" button next time?

Sale word made by colored letters image via Shutterstock

A version of this post originally appeared at Chris Thinnes

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