Educators face a seeming paradox.
On the one hand, there are things we know to be good for the student to learn. From literacy to the chronology of history, from math facts to human anatomy, we have important knowledge to impart.
On the other hand, learning is voluntary. It’s something the student has to choose to do. The student has to choose it both initially and in an ongoing way, since learning takes time and practice. A good education follows the child and respects his need to choose.
But what should we do when important learning doesn’t align with the student’s choices? What if the student choose otherwise than what we know to be good? Should we compromise? Negotiate? Threaten? Incentivize? These things don’t resolve the paradox; they keep it alive and try to keep the resulting tension at bay.
One major facet of how the paradox is actually resolved is by selling. We have to convince the student, inspire the student, persuade the student. These are the verbs of sales.
“Sales” has unfortunate associations. We think of used car salesmen, of Willy Loman, of being bombarded with ads and cajoled to part with our dollars. But, fundamentally, sales is about voluntary persuasion. It’s about bridging the gap between two people’s views of what’s worthwhile. Here’s Daniel Pink, in his (wonderful) book To Sell Is Human:
I don’t sell minivans in a car dealership or bound from office to office pressing cholesterol drugs on physicians. But…it turns out that I spend a significant portion of my days trying to coax others to part with resources. Sure, sometimes I’m trying to tempt people to purchase books I’ve written. But most of what I do doesn’t directly make a cash register ring. In that two-week period, I worked to convince a magazine editor to abandon a silly story idea, a prospective business partner to join forces, an organization where I volunteer to shift strategies, even an airline gate agent to switch me from a window seat to an aisle. Indeed, the vast majority of time I’m seeking resources other than money. Can I get strangers to read an article, an old friend to help me solve a problem, or my nine-year-old son to take a shower after baseball practice?
Sales is about communication, demonstration, agitation, inspiration. At core, sales is deeply respectful of human agency. In the best cases—including in our case—it works because the thing being sold is truly beneficial to the “buyer”, the user, and has indeed been designed to have its beneficial nature experienced by the user.
And, notably, sales is precisely what most educators have not done throughout most of history. The threat of punishment, whether it’s scolding or literal corporal punishment or something between, was and is a commonplace motivator in education. If you can’t get a student to do something, you make her do it.
Sales is about, well, selling her on doing it. And good educators do it all the time. From Pink again:
“I never thought of myself as a salesman, but I have come to the realization that we all are,” says Holly Witt Payton, a sixth-grade science teacher in Louisiana. “I’m selling my students that the science lesson I’m teaching them is the most interesting thing ever,” which is something Payton firmly believes.
Think of how much more true this within our Montessori pedagogy. Our whole educational approach is organized around selling the student on valuable work, via inspiration and demonstration:
Our curriculum is designed around “points of interest”. Every single lesson and material is an advertisement for itself: it is made of attractive material, has interesting affordances, and is designed to call out to the student.
Our educators are trained to be expert enticers. They master the art of presenting material to students in a way that will make them want to participate, to choose to spend their attention and effort on participation.
If our students don’t choose to do these things, we don’t resort to punishment or authoritarianism. We wait, we try again. Or: we observe the student, and we come up with alternate, individualized sales tactics.
We’re an uncompromisingly child-centered pedagogy… with a very specific curriculum, the core of which every single student works through in its entirety. What makes this possible? Sales. I find it helpful to think of this as being accomplished through a form of sales or perhaps an analog to it—through opinionated persuasion, demonstration, inspiration.
Part of the reason why I find it helpful to think of education in this way is that there is often a temptation to be more passive with respect to a person’s choices. In general and on average, I don’t think we, as a group, are likely to be tempted to be too authoritarian in the classroom. But we are tempted to be too hands-off. This comes from a good place, of wanting to protect a student’s agency, of being hyper-aware of the problems that flow from coercing a student into doing something. Montessori herself often emphasizes the need for teachers to be hands-off:
What is the greatest sign of success for a teacher…? It is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.” (The Absorbent Mind)
She places a tremendous emphasis on not intervening uselessly, on not breaking a child’s concentration, on trusting the choices and activity of a child. All of these things are in fact important, but they take place in a broader context of incredible craftsmanship and ongoing activity designed to inspire certain choices in children. Montessori again, making the point more precisely:
Above all, a teacher has a real duty to…be ‘active’ when putting the child in rapport with the environment, and be ‘passive’ when this rapport is achieved. (Child, Society, and the World)
The design of the education, including the environment and the curriculum, and the activity of the teacher are all geared towards a certain type of activity designed to create affordances for the child to be able to choose to think and work—and to inspire this choice, over and over again. In a broad sense of sales—a sense that I think is apt to the modern, post-salesman world—this is sales.
Article Source: Matt Bateman | Substack