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. . .but still not as magical as the “P” word (no not “please”, the other one).

We’re in the middle of a unit on persuasion right now. I love this unit because it’s so rich–it’s a great topic from which to teach so many cool things. Yes, students learn persuasive techniques so that they can better manipulate their parents and teachers, but we also hunt for these techniques when we read sales letters and advertisements (reading standards); we search for them on the radio and TV commercials (listening standards). Writing with these techniques requires discipline, a keen understanding of audience, and attention to details (writing standards). From a Language Arts perspective, it’s good stuff–great stuff.

But it’s also a blast because we get tap into a little psychology, human behavior, and begin to think a bit about thinking.

One of the mind benders I introduce is famously known (in psychological circles anyway) as the “The Copy Machine” study, conducted by Ellen Langer, the first woman to earn tenure as a professor of psychology at Harvard.

The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in the New York Times by Philip Hilts.

In that study, she stationed someone at a copy machine in a busy graduate school office. When someone stepped up and began copying, Dr. Langer’s plant would come up to the person and interrupt, asking to butt in and make copies. The interruption was allowed fairly often, about 60 percent of the time. But the permission was granted almost 95 percent of the time if the person stepping up to interrupt not only asked, ”May I use the copy machine?” but added a reason, ”because I’m in a rush.”

That seems to make sense. People heard the reason and decided they were willing to step aside for a moment. What was odd, Dr. Langer found, was that if the interrupter asked, ”Can I use the machine?” and added a meaningless phrase, ”because I have to make copies,” the people at the machine also stepped aside nearly 95 percent of the time.

The idea, she said, is that the listener at the copy machine heard a two-part statement: a request and something like a reason. That was all their mental script for such a situation required. They never did reflect on the fact that the interrupter’s ”reason” was not meaningful.

As a teacher, I get dozens of requests an hour. Most are fairly pedestrian:

  • “Can I borrow a pencil?”
  • “Can I go to my locker?”
  • “Can I get a drink?”
  • “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Now, after we learn a few persuasive techniques, I tell the students to persuade me. After learning about the power of the word “because,” most of them use that . . .because it’s relatively simple.

And it works even better than “please”. Still, most of them forget.

“Mr. Wondra, I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Persuade me,” I’ll say.

They’ll roll their eyes, sigh heavily, do a little potty dance.

“But Mr. Wondra! I REALLY have to go . . .BAD!”

I nod and smile. Eventually, they realize I’m not budging and so fumble around until they construct coherent request. After awhile they begin to do it automatically–or at least they remember after I look at them and say nothing.

I figure this is good teaching–reinforcing the content using a real world application–right? Plus I get to play the powerful-hoity-toity teacher role.

This was the case the other day. I was in the back of the room spot checking (quickly assessing) an assignment, when a fairly quite but confident a girl walked over.

“Mr. Wondra, can I go the bathroom?”

I looked up.  There was a slight pause, but her expression never changed, and she never broke eye contact.

“. . .because I have my period.”

Talk about a persuasive argument. She knocked that one out of the park.