Push Me, Pull Me

It’s an interesting sign of how this connected world we live in actually works when I see people coming back to revisit an idea that was floated months earlier, still mulling it over and willing to come back and re-clarify things again in their own head, which in turn helps others (like me) to re-clarify things in mine. I’m referring to a post called Unlearning, Relearning, Learning by Graham Wegner, who was in turn responding to an earlier post written on this blog back in May this year.

The conversation had basically turned to the idea of how people learn. Graham referred to another post from Dean Groom, where Dean talked about the idea of people being able to learn on demand, when they need it, by accessing the wealth of available online resources that are scattered across the Internet, produced by the millions of members of the online community. This mass-sharing has produced what Dean referred to as “the scattered manual”, where the instructions for doing pretty much anything can be found and reassembled in order to learn, if only you have the skills to do so. I hadn’t heard that idea of the “scattered manual” before, but I really like it because that’s pretty much exactly what it is… a collective knowledge of many people scattered right across the network. When one has the skills and ability to decode, reassemble, aggregate the parts of the “manual”, then that elusive “independent learning” becomes a real possibility for anyone who wants (and knows how) to get it.

I think there are two very different and distinct aspects of learning something… one is obviously the learning, and that seems to be a “pull” activity initiated by the learner. Learners need to assume responsibility to pull information to themselves when they feel they need it.

The other aspect is teaching, and that seems more like a “push” activity, where information is pushed towards the learner, usually by a “teacher”, or someone who already has the knowledge, skills or understandings that the learner does not yet have.

As much as we talk about reinventing education by doing away with “teaching” in favour of “learning” (usually as a reaction against the industrial model of education where teachers taught and students were supposed to just absorb it, and in doing so restore learning to its rightful place) I think we need to be careful that we don’t push the pendulum too far the other way and marginalise the act of teaching altogether.

My feeling is that good teachers know when to actively teach, and when to allow students to independently learn. Good teachers know when to push and when to allow pull. They know when to say to a student “this is how you do it”, versus saying “you need to go away and think about this for yourself”. It’s not that Teaching should take precedence over Learning, or that Learning is somehow less tainted with the stink of the 20th Century than Teaching, but rather, we need to know where the balance point is, in various situations, for different students, and apply that balance dynamically so that every student is always right there on the edge of their Zone of Proximal Development. A learner’s reach should always exceed their grasp, but only by the appropriate amount, and perhaps the teacher’s role is to keep that gap at the appropriate amount.

As a teacher, I want to have the wisdom to know when to say to my learners (including when these learners happen to be other adults), “You seem to be struggling, let me help you”, and conversely when to say “I will not do this for you, as it only deprives you of the opportunity to learn it for yourself.”

I don’t think you should ever do for someone what they can and should be able to do for themselves. The “scattered manual” exists so readily that to deprive learners from the opportunity, and in doing so absolve them from the responsibility, to learn for themselves just shortchanges everybody in the long run.

CC BY 4.0 Push Me, Pull Me by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

7 Replies to “Push Me, Pull Me”

  1. “I think we need to be careful that we don’t push the pendulum too far the other way and marginalise the act of teaching altogether.” I totally agree Chris. Having worked in differing education environments (Corporate eLearning, Blended Learning, the classroom, PD, etc) the internal message that I always receive is that teaching is important, particularly that face to face component. Teachers garner intuitively when an additional question, anecdote or even a distractor needs to be dropped into the learning/teaching environment to extend the ripples of thought and understanding developing among the students. Even those big schools of fish need a shark or two to shake things up a bit.

  2. @ Chris,

    Thanks so much for putting into words what I have been thinking. I agree how powerful some explicit teaching can be and I have felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of teachers being simple facilitators or the like. I love the idea of balancing the push and pull.

    This is yet another of your blog posts that I will be sharing!


  3. Thank you Chris… you provide such clarity of thought! At one level, as a teacher, the role of observing learners and meeting them at their point of need, is a vitally important reason to continue to have classrooms and teachers. Those teachers need to be connected and available to their students. On another level, as a parent, I find the waters getting muddier by the day! How to source a school that provides a differentiated curriculum using 21st century tools and pedagogies… and can be afforded on a teacher’s salary! No one I have met has an interest in my son’s “Zone of Proximal Development” (sorry to complain on your blog… just ignore the angst!) There are so many personality factors involved in how a student learns and what their school experiences end up providing them – the profile of what is offered to Australian students still needs a lot of change before it comes anywhere near to meeting their current needs. From the point of view of a parent, they still look very much like factories to me… and I’m required to be a factory worker… 
    Regards, Deb (Sydney)

  4. So refreshing to read a balanced view on this subject. I think that sometimes we do let the “pendulum swing too far” and, to coin another phrase, “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation but, as you say, a case of knowing when the student needs to be taught and when he/she needs to learn for themselves. 

    Great post Chris, and one that I’m sure has got a few brains ticking.

  5. Chris, I agree you have a way of saying things with great clarity.  I like your post so much I quoted from it in my latest tech tips, along with the link to your blog.  Thanks for your insights.  I also love your “Ways of Working” video.  I finally got brave enough to try Netvibes and convinced a teacher to try this with her students.  We do a lot of technology, but sadly much of it is “more of the same” with a different tool.  I’m still hoping to move more into the “something new with new tools.”  Joan Belknap 

    1. Thanks for the feedback Joan, I’m glad you were able to make us of the post, and the video too. It’s one of the joys of living in a highly connected world that we are able to share and remix ideas so freely. 

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