The Push and Pull of Student Learning

by Ray McNulty, Successful Practices Network

Teaching is challenging! There are many times, at the end of the day, when exhausted teachers wonder if they are making any headway in moving a reluctant student toward success. Having to repeat safety procedures, reminding students to replace their tools, or tutoring a student for the third time on multiplying fractions can create the unsettling feeling that learning is impossible. The Greek legend of Sisyphus comes to mind as an apt metaphor for this kind of frustrating teaching — endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, never making any progress.

The boulder could well represent some of our students, who require considerable effort to push them to the place where we hope they will be, on the mountain of education achievement. The mental image of the weary teacher and a massive, impassive student boulder is not a healthy one for teachers or student learning.

Working with reluctant learners can feel like trying to push a student across the finish line of passing a course. Maybe in place of thinking of teaching as a "pushing" exercise requiring considerable effort, re-imagine it as pulling. Your immediate reaction might be, "Wow, pulling an object up a hill is even more challenging than pushing." However, rather than thinking about an external pull of you trying to pull the boulder uphill, think about using an internal pull. Shift the mental model of the teacher working externally to push students toward a learning goal to one of facilitating the student’s internal pull toward that goal. This is the push and pull of student learning. Teachers pushing students to learn is exhausting and frustrating.

In contrast, when the student feels an internal pull to accomplish a learning goal, the feeling is very different. Setting up an internal pull still requires effort, and teachers may exert more time planning and facilitating learning. Still, the results are more rewarding for students and teachers.

What drives our students?

How can teachers create an internal pull to motivate students? In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes the three internal motivators that move people, in other words, that pull people toward a goal. Pink points out that it is not rewards and punishment that drive people; it is a shared purpose, frequent measurement of mastery, and the ability to make autonomous choices. These are foundations of pull learning.

First, when we adopt a clear goal or objective and especially when we share that purpose with other people we care about, we are intrinsically motivated. Second, when people can frequently measure and quantify that they are gaining proficiency in their work through frequent recognition, feedback, or even self-reflection, it drives them to continue to practice and improve. Finally, when people have greater autonomy in what they do, and when they do it, it increases their drive. These motivating principles apply to students as well.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) offers some natural pull learning

because the subject matter is usually not a requirement, students have some choice in what they study, and the courses have a clear, relevant purpose. Moreover, mastery is often visible because it is measured by performance in a real-world setting. That is why CTE students are generally more motivated than students in general academic courses.

Of course, even CTE teachers’ work can sometimes drift into feeling like teachers are pushing reluctant students to succeed, rather than the learning goals pulling them toward success by their interest in the content. By applying the Drive principles — shared purpose, frequent measurement, and autonomous choices — in a mental learning model, teachers can rely less on pushing and facilitate more pulling.

Visualizing push versus pull learning

A great way to think visually about push vs. pull learning is to use the Rigor/Relevance Framework™. The framework categorizes high and low levels of rigor and relevance. Low rigor/low relevance learning is what teachers seem to have to push students to complete. CTE is naturally highly relevant, but even CTE can become bogged down at times into low rigor tasks. When students are challenged with real-world problems of high rigor and high relevance, solving that problem becomes a pull student motivator.

In these pull teaching situations, students will work to acquire the foundation knowledge of skills needed to construct the solution to completely solve the problem. High rigor/high relevance aligns with Pink’s three human motivators. These real-world problems usually involve teams working toward a common goal, students have choices in completing the tasks along the way and mastery is only achieved when the solution works in the end.

Think about your teaching. The more you can include pull learning into your work with students, the more motivated they will be.

Examples of Push Learning

  • Require reading, viewing, or listening in case students need it later on
  • Prepare for a required state academic exam
  • Take a course required for a diploma
  • Working alone
  • Memorizing lists now for future use

Examples of Pull Learning

  • Teach for high rigor and high relevance learning
  • Engage in reading, viewing, or listening for something that is needed right now
  • Take a technical assessment leading to the desired industry credential
  • Take a required course in the student’s chosen pathway
  • Choose an option for demonstrating proficiency
  • Design a project that relates to a personal passion
  • Design a product for personal or family use
  • Work with a team to complete a task
  • Give students frequent feedback

Try to include more pull learning in your CTE instruction, and at the end of the day, your instruction will feel less like the work of Sisyphus and remind you again of the reasons you became a CTE teacher.