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An Interview with Daniel Pink: Selling Students to Become Self-Directed Learners

Teachers as Persuaders, Problem-Finding vs Problem-Solving and Learning Goals vs Performance Goals

One of our favorite authors, Daniel Pink (Drive), has a new book and was recently interviewed by Larry Ferlazzo for Education Week.  Pink’s new book is titled: To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others.  In this conversation with Ferlazzo, Pink talks about how teachers can “sell” more to students to help them to become self-directed lifelong learners and how current education practices, assessments, etc. help or hinder us in this goal.

Pink makes some clarifications and distinctions about ideas that are important to the conversation about the purpose of education and what we should be focusing on.

  • Teachers and Selling – Pink talks about “non-sales selling” by which he means persuasion, convincing and influencing.  The point here is not to do something to someone but to create the conditions where they want to do things for themselves. Pink notes, 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.
  • Empathy and Perspective-taking – There is a growing body of research about teaching students to be more empathetic which is one of the character skills that many believe should be focused on in education.  Pink says that that the concepts of empathy and perspective-taking are similar but not the same,and that the difference is important. Empathy is understanding another’s feelings while perspective-taking is looking at something through the interests of others. While both are important, the research shows that perspective-taking is slightly more effective in moving others. So while teachers should work to understand what their students are feeling, they should also work to understand what they’re thinking — the reasons they might be opposed to doing something. With student motivation and personalization frequent topics of discussion in education circles, keeping both of these concepts in mind can be helpful in getting to know students, understanding their actions and designing effective learning opportunities.
  • Problem-solving vs Problem-finding – Problem-solving  gets a lot of attention these days, and rightfully so, but Pink notes that while superintendents rank problem-solving as the number one quality needed for successful employees, employers rank it eighth with problem-finding ranked first. In helping to find potential problems Pink says, 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.  To help students learn problem-finding Pink says there are no easy answers but some things that might help are: breaking the boundary between school and the world – 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.
  • Life-long Learning vs Data-driven Increased Test Scores –  Pink suggests that meeting the goal of increased test scores may not equate to life-long learning skills and enduring learning  This obviously depends on what behaviors are tested and how they are tested but Pink believes that educators should think through Carol Dweck’s work and understand the difference between learning goals and performance goals. Pink says, 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. 

Pink ends with a suggestion for educators: to 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.

You can find the interview here along with more resources involving Pink and Ferlazzo



Dennis has been the Director of the the VT-HEC since it was founded in 2000. He spent 16 years at the VT-DOE as Director of teams with various names that included: special education, Title I, health and wellness and other family and education support services. Prior to that Dennis worked at the Barre Town School (VT) starting as a special educator and serving many years as the Director of Student Support Services. He also spent 6 years as a classroom teacher grades 5-8 in NJ.

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