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.