Push and Pull Learning
Written by Jim Knight.

In his book Masterful Coaching, Robert Hargrove makes a simple distinction that I’ve been thinking about ever since I read it.  There are two types of coaching, he says: Push and Pull.

Push Coaching, Hargrove says, occurs when coaches start with a series of ideas and then try to convince others to implement them. Learning, in push coaching, is pushed along by the coach.

Pull coaching, Hargrove says, occurs when coaches ask others what they would like to do in the future.  Learning, in pull coaching, is pulled along by the goals and desires of the learners.

This distinction between push and pull learning, of course, can be applied to most other learning situations.  What is the motivation for learning:  the goals of the teacher or the goals of the learner?

In my own life, I know I learn a heck of a lot more when I am learning because I am fired up about it, because it matters to me, than when I am doing something that has been chosen for me. And I bet that is the case for most learners.

The importance of pull is also the biggest idea in Daniel Pink’s nice summary of the literature on motivation, Drive. Pink explains, after reviewing piles of research on motivation, that we are not motivated by other people’s goals, but only by our own goals. This is a pretty simple idea, and yet it is one that we all too often overlook when we plan instruction.

Our learning is driven by standards, tests, objectives and so forth. But shouldn’t we pay at least equal attention to our students’ interests, desires, and goals?  What would happen if, instead of trying to push learning on children every day our educational systems started with a simple question:  What is going to interest, motivate and inspire our students?  What if we gave as much attention to the hearts of our learners as we do to the standards on our tests?

This does not need to be a theoretical question. There are strategies we can employ today to unleash students’ interests.  We can ask our students about their interests. We creating meaningful activities that help students target their interests. We can give students choices.  We can try to deeply understand our students, and when we know them, we can build at least some learning around what we know.  We can link students up with mentors who helped them define and pursue their goals.

“People love to learn but hate to be taught,” Diane Dietz has said.  Maybe people hate to be taught because what is being learned is being pushed on them.  We will keep the desire to learn alive much longer if we create opportunities for pull learning. If we start with the student, something really powerful can happen.


  1. Beverly Downey

    What a great concept. This is a great visual for coaches. Nobody likes a pushover…nobody likes a “pushy” person, but people like someone who invites you (or pulled) into a situation.

  2. Holly

    What a wonderful way to describe the desire to learn. Yes, we have all been there. Something we should not forget! I am so thankful that I can still be at the place to desire learning!

  3. Patti Ward

    In one of your ‘hot links’ it says: “Non-negotiable areas of curriculum can be made more exciting for students when approached through their interests.” I think this is important to keep in mind when district leaders (not necessarily all the teachers) have decided on a school-wide change model. The goal for the coach will be to find something within that model that they wish to explore, learn and practice. I think you can have ‘choice’ within ‘structure’. We do need to give attention to the hearts of our teachers.

  4. Sam LoPresto

    I can really relate to this. When I was a building principal, I felt like I was out in front “pulling” the staff along. When I went to Central Office as Curriculum Director I found myself “pushing” initiatives with district staff.

  5. Deanna

    This puts two pictures in my mind. One, someone pushing me off a cliff and two, someone pulling me in a wagon….supporting my efforts to get from point a to b.

  6. ASims

    As I reflect on push vs pull, my years as an educator have led me to an important insight for coaching educators: pushing educators is always less effective than truly pulling them. Educators are biologically hard-wired to resist being pushed, so effective coaches resist the impulse to push them and respect what the teacher brings to the table. Coaches who master these impulses are more successful. Coaches who learn to acknowledge the teachers knowledge during the change process have the power to generate success for the students.

  7. Sherly Play School

    Talk to them, listen to them – when they throw a tantrum, yelling at them and shutting them up just will not work.



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