The Push and Pull of Student Learning
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 an impression that learning is impossible. The Greek legend of Sisyphus comes to mind as an apt metaphor for this kind of teaching — endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, never making any progress.
The boulder could well be some of our students, who require considerable effort to push them to the place where they need to 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 learning.
Maybe in place of thinking of teaching as a “pushing” exercise requiring great effort, reimagine 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 on the boulder, 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 students’ internal pull toward that goal. This is the push and pull of student learning.
What drives our students? In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes the three inner 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. First, when we adopt a clear goal or objective and especially when we share that common purpose with other people we care about, we are motivated. Second, when people can frequently measure 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 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. Of course, even CTE teachers’ work can sometimes drift into attempting to push students to success rather than pulling them toward learning by their interest in the content. By applying the drive principles — shared purpose, frequent measurement, and autonomous choices — to a mental learning model, teachers can rely less on pushing and facilitate more pulling.
Examples of Push Learning
- Content required to read, view, or listen to
- A required Regents exam
- A course required for a diploma
- Learning for future use
Examples of Pull Learning
- Quadrant D learning - high rigor and high relevance
- Technical assessment leading to the industry credential sought
- A required course in the student’s chosen pathway
- Learning something to use right now
- A project that relates to a personal passion
- A product for personal or family use
- Work that requires a contribution from a team
Try to include more pull in your CTE instruction, and at the end of the day, your job will seem less like the work of Sisyphus and more like the reason you became a CTE teacher.