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Dan Pink: How Teachers Can Sell Love of Learning to Students

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love learning
By Jennie Rose

In his new book To Sell is Human, author Daniel Pink reports that education is one of the fastest growing job categories in the country. And with this growth comes the opportunity to change the way educators envision their roles and their classrooms. Guided by findings in educational research and neuroscience, the emphasis on cognitive skills like computation and memorization is evolving to include less tangible, non-cognitive skills, like collaboration and improvisation.

Jobs in education, Pink said in a recent interview, are all about moving other people, changing their behavior, like getting kids to pay attention in class; getting teens to understand they need to look at their future and to therefore study harder. At the center of all this persuasion is selling: educators are sellers of ideas.

Whether a teacher is presenting to her board or pitching a crowd of 12-year-olds on why Shakespeare was a genius, it’s all the art of persuasion. Though his new book has only been out a couple of weeks, Pink said he's already received many messages from teachers who agree that, “Yes, I sell. I sell students on poetry, on calculus, on biology.”

In fact, the business world has a lot to learn from educators: what motivates people, how to inspire people to perform well. But educators can also take a lesson from the commercial world: namely, teaching the complicated skill of finding problems. In a recent study, Pink said school superintendents rated problem-solving as the top capability they wanted to instill. Corporate executives, however, rated problem-solving as seventh on their list of attributes in employees, but rated problem identification as the single most important skill. That is, the ability to suss out issues and challenges that aren't necessarily obvious. And this is where students could benefit from educators -- learning the process of identifying a problem.

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don't need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don't know what my problem is or when I'm wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”


So how do educators help kids become problem-finders when they don’t know what the problem is or where the next one might be coming from? “A lot of people hate this word but I think we have to take it seriously, which is relevance,” Pink said. “There’s something to be said for connecting particular lessons to something in the real world.”

For instance, application of math principles, which has real relevance in the real world. “Even with my own kids, to some extent I see math has become an abstract code designed to get a right answer rather than seeing that math explains why this building is standing up, or why the traffic is going slow right now, or why the 49ers are kicking a field goal rather than going for first down."


One of the big topics Pink tackles in his current book is the idea of moving from transactions to transcendence -- to making something personal. That's the best way to "sell" students on what they're learning, Pink maintains. This has been a recurring theme in education: connecting what's taught in classrooms to students' personal lives. But, as evidenced by current school dynamics, that's not the way the tide is moving.

"Most of our education is heavily, heavily, heavily standardized," Pink said. "So, 11-year-olds are all together in one room. No 10-year-olds, and certainly no 13-year-olds. And [assuming that] all of those 11-year-olds are the same, we're going to put them all together in a 35-kid classroom. Every educator knows that doesn't work well. Every educator knows about differentiated instruction. The idea that you treat everybody the same way is foolish, and yet the headwinds in education are very much toward routines, right answer, standardization."

Why is it moving this way? One of the reasons, Pink said, is the “appalling” absence of leadership on this issue. “One of the things that I see as an outsider is that so much of education policy seems designed for the convenience of adults rather than the education of children," he said. "Start time is a perfect example. Why do we do that? It’s more convenient for the teachers. Why do we have standardized testing? Because it’s unbelievably cheap. If you want to give real evaluations to kids, they have to be personalized, tailored to the kids, at the unit of one. Standardized testing: totally easy, totally cheap, and scales. Convenient for politicians and taxpayers."

With big changes coming in the form of Common Core State Standards, some fear the idea of standardized “one-size-fits-all” will become even more deeply embedded in education policy. While mastering a core set of literacies makes sense if it can turn students into effective citizens by becoming numerate and literate, Pink said the manner in which Common Core is implemented will determine its value. If Common Core is the only curriculum presented to students, then it runs into

[RELATED: How to Connect School World to the Real World]

the danger of becoming "all about cramming facts." Knowing for a test that the 5th Amendment is about self-incrimination does not necessarily result in good citizenship.

The same principle applies to the big trend in games and learning, which sometimes results simply in rewards for rote knowledge and memorization. Games have the potential to make math more relevant or engaging, Pink said, but if they lead to standardized thinking about getting to the one right answer, that can be problematic. It’s the carrot and stick thinking vestigial of a bygone era. If the only aim of a game is for points and badges, the game has little benefit for the player. For a game to be compelling and a good source of learning, it should be capable of providing rapid, robust, regular, and meaningful feedback. Social gaming, such as Minecraft, is one instantiation of this kind of salient feedback, Pink said.

The standardized model of education is in dire need of an upgrade, producing students with skills that won’t serve them well outside the boundaries of school. Students who are driven by external rewards (grades, trophies), will be fare worse than those who are self-directed, motivated by freedom, challenge, and purpose, Pink wrote in his earlier book Drive.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “We have a lot of learned behavior of compliance, and hunger for external rewards and no real engagement. We have this belief that people perform better if we hit them with this endless arsenal of carrots and sticks: If-then motivators. To get to that engagement, people have to unlearn these deeply rooted habits. I defy you to find a two year old who is not engaged. That’s how we are out of the box.”


As a student, Pink said he did what everyone else did -- he wrote a paper for a class, wrote it neatly, on time, and for a grade. But when he started writing for the school newspaper, things shifted in his mind. He realized it would reach his peers, and suddenly he was motivated to improve his writing. The same goes for any student, he said. “Those clues are right in front of us,” says Pink.

That's what Big Pictures Schools, a network of schools across the country, on which Pink serves as board member, are attempting to do. New students at these schools are asked questions about  their interests. They could be interested in martial arts, ballet, baseball. Then teachers take the information, and build a curriculum around those particular interests.

[RELATED: How Teachers Can Prepare Students for a Connected World]

Another way of personalizing learning, among many others, are DIY report cards. Even a fifth-grader has the wherewithal to say, “This is what I want to learn; this is what I want to accomplish; this is what I want to get better at.” Then he can look for ways to get feedback on his performance, so he can see that he’s making progress and see that he’s getting better at something.

“An educator in upstate New York did these DIY report cards, and they changed the way he taught,” Pink said. “When students assessed themselves, they held themselves to a higher standard. This changed the way he looked at the kids.”