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October 1, 2021

The Learning Zone / Pull Versus Push Professional Development

When teachers choose the goals, professional development gains critical momentum.
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Professional Learning
October 2021 Knight thumbnail image: An illustration of a car being pulled up an incline.
Credit: October 2021
Chances are you have had experiences with professional development that doesn't work. Maybe teachers—possibly including you—have sat quietly in a compulsory workshop listening to someone talk about "standards" or "best practices" or "test results." Although the teachers were polite, their lack of eye contact with the presenter, or the lack of energy in the room, suggested that what was being described was not going to be implemented. Or maybe you've watched a video of a coaching conversation where the coach tries to give advice to a teacher who rejects each suggestion. The more enthusiastic the coach becomes, the less enthusiastic the teacher is. (Maybe you've even been that teacher.)
When professional learning doesn't work, professional developers are tempted to label teachers as resistant. "Why," they might ask, "won't these teachers do what I say?" But I have found that, in most cases, when teachers don't implement the ideas shared in workshops, it isn't their fault. It's the result of poorly designed professional development.

Slogging Uphill or Pulled by Enthusiasm?

I like to use a simple analogy to illustrate why professional development sometimes goes wrong. Imagine you are driving your car and you run out of gas. You can see a gas station a few hundred yards ahead at the top of a hill. Needing to get fuel, you and your passengers get out of your car and start pushing. But the car is heavy, and the hill is steep. Although you push harder and harder, eventually you give up. No matter how hard you work, you'll never get the car to the station by pushing.

When professional development is pushed onto teachers, it can be a lot like trying to push a car up the hill—a lot of work and not much progress.

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Jim Knight

Now imagine a different scenario. This time your car hits empty at the top of a hill. A few hundred yards ahead, at the bottom of the hill, you see a gas station. This time, to get to the station, you simply let gravity pull your car down the hill, adjusting the steering and touching the brakes to stay on track until you roll, almost effortlessly, into the station.
These two distinct strategies, push versus pull, also describe two different ways of designing professional development and coaching. When professional development is pushed onto teachers through compulsory workshops or advice-giving, it can be a lot like trying to push your car up the hill—a lot of work and not much progress. However, when professional development begins with teachers identifying a goal they really want to meet, the professional developer's role shifts from directing to supporting and helping teachers achieve what matters deeply to them. Professional development that's pulled by teachers' goals is PD that will likely get to an identified destination.
I first read about the distinction between push and pull in Robert Hargrove's Masterful Coaching.1 Hargrove writes that using pull is about "inviting people to discover their greatness" (p. 13) by declaring "an ambitious aspiration for themselves and their organization" (p. 346). "Pull" PD moves forward because of an emotionally compelling, powerful goal that matters deeply to the teacher and that will have a positive impact on
"Push" PD, by contrast, is a remnant of old command-and-control models of leadership, in which a few smart people make most decisions and then put systems in place to push people to implement them. One vestige of the command-and-control paradigm is directive coaching: A coach watches a teacher teach, shares some observations, and then tells the teacher what she should do. Sadly, when teachers are simply told what to do, they often comply with the directive by looking for a way to do what they've been told to using the least amount of effort. The coaches in the coaching workshops I conduct understand Pull PD conceptually, but their questions give away that they're having trouble staying away from Push strategies: "What can I do," they often ask, "when teachers won't do what I suggest they should do?"
With Push PD, teachers are expected to implement something with fidelity even though they may not see the value of the innovation—and even if their district has a history of trying and dropping new innovations before they ever take hold. In many cases, teachers who are thinking "This too shall pass" aren't being negative; they are being realistic. Part of being realistic is not investing too much energy in a teaching methodology that will be gone within a year or two.

Beyond Passive Compliance

Not surprisingly, Push PD often engenders resistance. A mountain of research shows that most of us aren't motivated by others choosing goals for us. Push training creates dependency and inhibits creativity, often leading teachers to say, "Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it." Perhaps most troubling, since the Push model fails to encourage individual creativity, it often pushes talented teachers out the door.

In many cases, teachers who are thinking "This too shall pass," aren't being negative; they are being realistic. Part of being realistic is not investing too much energy in a teaching methodology that will be gone within a year or two.

Author Image

Jim Knight

Pull PD, however, is guided by teachers' decision making about what happens and should happen in the classroom. It respects teachers and treats them like professionals. When coaches take the Pull approach, they give teachers tools (reflection forms, video recordings of lessons, etc.) so that teachers can determine their own understanding of the reality of the classroom. Then coaches skillfully ask questions that empower teachers to identify important goals. Coaches who take the Pull approach do share ideas and strategies with teachers when it is helpful, but they always make suggestions tentatively, so the teacher is always the ultimate decision maker about what happens in her classroom.
Using a Pull approach doesn't mean being soft on people. Pull usually requires teachers to work hard, to courageously confront reality and step outside of their comfort zone. This effort is inspired by teachers' desire to see good things for their kids.
Pull goes against some deeply engrained ideas about how organizations should be structured and how PD should be delivered, so it can be hard to embrace. Inevitably, too, there will be some forms of professional development that must be shared through a Push approach. But the more teachers have a voice in their learning, the more control they have over their own growth, and, indeed, the more teachers are treated like professionals, the more real change will happen—real change that leads to better experiences for students.

Related Resource

Read more from Jim Knight in The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching: Seven Factors for Success.

End Notes

1 Hargrove, R. (2008). Masterful coaching: 3rd edition. New York: Pfeiffer.

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