What we really mean by "buy-in"

What we really mean by "buy-in"
Photo by Coasteering / Unsplash

Whenever we talk about something innovative, or even just different, in teaching, we end up talking about buy-in. How do you get students to buy in to flipped learning? How do I get the administrative buy-in for mastery grading? Will faculty buy in to the idea of not having student evaluations of teaching? And so on. When I give workshops on something like flipped learning or teaching with technology, the question of buy-in is always there, usually unasked until the closing Q&A sessions when somebody works up the courage to ask about it.

The internet tells me that the first published use of this term was in 1968. Although I couldn't track down the instance of when it was first used, this sounds about right. That year was at the center of seismic change, so it's no wonder that a slick new term to refer to agreement, support, and personal investment would emerge. It was an era, too, of euphemisms: the term collateral damage originated during the Vietnam war, and Watergate practically had a dictionary full of them.

There is something deeply euphemistic about the term buy-in applied to education. The true question we want to ask always seems beneath the surface of this term. It has the flavor of a financial or commodity transaction. In fact without the hyphen, the term "buy in" refers to "buy[ing] supplies or commodities in large quantities from an external supplier". But surely this isn't what we mean, at least in education. It's definitely not what I mean. When I talk about flipped learning or alternative grading systems, I am not trying to sell something. The use of that term "buy-in" by educators plays directly into the very commodification of higher education that we often and rightfully speak against.

So I propose we drop that term, and ask ourselves – What are we really trying to talk about when we talk about "buy-in"?

I think the answer to that question, is trust.

I think what we really mean when we ask How do I get this person to buy in to this concept? is How do I get this person to trust me? To trust their students or colleagues? For that matter, how do I come to trust myself? When I give a talk or workshop about flipped learning for example and I get the question about buy-in (How do I get buy-in from students?), the real question comes from uncertainty. What the person asking the question really means is:

  • How can I learn to trust my teaching abilities so I can do this and be confident about it?
  • How can I get my students to trust me when I say that this is better for them than lecturing? Or when I say or do anything?
  • And if I f— this up, how can I be sure my colleagues trust me enough to know that I'm not a terrible teacher, just a person who tried something in good faith and failed?

We talk about "buy-in" as if it were something that we elicit from other people. But it's really a matter of trust that is built between you and others. If your students don't trust you, nothing you do — not even the most basic read-from-the-Power-Point lecture — is going to be effective or satisfying. If you work in a departmental culture of mistrust, then everything you do is suspect. If you don't trust yourself, nothing will work for you or anybody else.

And there is no shortcut to this. It takes concerted effort to build trust through relationships and experience. And as we all know, trust can be lost in a moment. It's a terrifying business that is at the core of all human relationships, and therefore at the core of education.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.