Persuasion is Foundational to Teaching

Susan B. Ison is president and founder of the
Victus Study Skills System.
In addition to her God, her family and friends, she enjoys painting and writing ( She is blessed with a wonderful husband, 6 children, and 9 grandchildren.

In my 50-plus years of teaching and consulting, I’ve learned that the art of persuasion and teaching are not mutually exclusive. Instead, persuasion is foundational to teaching. Whether I have a classroom of students or just one student, if I have not somehow used the art of persuasion, I have not succeeded.

Aristotle made it clear that one of the three components necessary to of the art of persuasion is pathos, or emotion. Pathos was not to stand alone, but to be accompanied by credibility, which I covered in my previous article, and logos, or logic.

Our eldest son has told me he believes emotions are overrated, and I have to admit I often agree. My Dad always taught us to think before we acted. I don’t recall him ever telling me to feel before acting!

It seems our culture is now leaning more toward how we feel than what we think. “How do you feel about that?” is a question we often hear. It’s not a bad question—unless it’s the only one.

We see the consequences of reacting on emotion without thinking almost any time we read or hear the news. Some of the most horrendous leaders have incited others to terrible acts by influencing their emotions. Emotion can be a double-edged, dangerous sword, or it can be a useful, much-needed tool. Let’s see how it can be used for good in teaching.

In my last article I told you about the world-renowned statistician and consultant W. Edwards Deming, one of my most influential teachers. In the seminar I attended where he taught, he used emotion to persuade in the most unique ways.

One of the main points he wanted us to understand was that when workers fail, it is normally the result of faulty processes that are in place, and that sound processes are the responsibility of management. However, instead of talking about that point, he conducted his famous on-stage “Red Bead Experiment” which you can read about in detail online, and I will briefly summarize.

He first asked for a few volunteers from the audience who would be “willing workers.” Their job was to use the paddle he gave them to get only the white beads from a box containing a mixture of white beads and red beads. The volunteers came to the stage. He explained the job and the rewards and punishments which would be given.

The workers tried really hard, but the job was impossible to perform. Even when they were punished by a cut in pay or threatened with being fired, the frustrated workers could not produce only white beads by dipping a paddle into this mixture of beads. There were always those “defective” red beads.

As we sat in the audience, we were frustrated for these volunteers too. We knew this ludicrous process only disheartened the workers, and our emotions were full of empathy for them.

Then the mood slowly changed to one of understanding, as Deming helped us see that the workers tried to do a good job even when they knew they could not succeed, and that they were powerless to change this broken process.

The Red Bead Experiment goes into more depth than what I’ve described here. Deming’s statistical expertise and the need to draw accurate conclusions from data was displayed throughout. He concluded that as much as 98% of performance is governed by the system or processes that are in place, and that management is responsible for those processes. The results come from the process and the process is the responsibility of management.

As we reflect on Deming’s approach, we see a teacher who not only engaged the emotion of the audience, but also continued to exude his passion for what he taught at 91 years of age!

Let’s look for creative ways to engage our students and their emotions, while seeking a continual stream of passion in our own teaching. We have the awesome responsibility of helping to shape the minds of our younger generation. We must remember that we as parents and teachers are the hand that rocks the cradle, and therefore, rules the world.

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