Push (Traditional) vs Pull (Agile) System in Education | Jessica Cavallaro | 6 Min Read

What does education look like in 2021?

Is it students sitting silently at desks? Worksheets and textbooks? Bell ringers and guided notes?

These are symbols of traditional learning we have all experienced or witnessed in our time in and out of the classroom. When our educational system began we relied on a PUSH-based system with the main goal being competency through memorization and compliance in an industrial system. This type of learning arguably suited the needs of the time and soon became the fallacy of “We’ve always done it this way”. 

What is a PUSH-based system of learning?

This is often a traditional educational setting. The teacher is the expert and pushes the knowledge out to students. Teachers decide what must be taught, how it will be taught, and how students will consume it. Students are passive in this system, expected to be enraptured in the voice and thought of the educator, silently taking notes, and absorbing information like a sponge. While this system has been the foundation of American education for the past 50 years, we are just participating in it because “it’s the way it’s always been done.”

In a traditional classroom, the learning objectives on the board dictate to students what they will be doing that day. Students then listen to a lecture, participate in group discussion, and complete a worksheet for application. This entire interaction is one way. Students are passive in their seats. They are told what they will be learning. The knowledge is pushed. They answer questions verbally and in written form. The bell rings and the students move on. 

This basic system of education is repeated day after day until the unit test. How much will be retained after the weekend? What will the students remember as key ideas after a month? Is this learning or memorization? This is a PUSH-based system because the teacher controls the material, content delivery, and application. The students have no choice, no agency, and very low levels of actual engagement. 

The PUSH system has been experienced by all of us, but in a new VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complexity, Ambiguous) world post-COVID, it does not appear that the current push system is delivering valuable learning opportunities. Our students are facing a world we could never imagine. The complexity of the problems they will solve in their lifetimes could not be dreamed of by the best sci-fi authors and the technological advancements will be staggering. 

Do we still want to train our students to be passive sponges that only memorize others’ thoughts?

Introducing an Agile PULL-based system 

In a PULL-based educational system, students PULL the information to them. I’m not advocating for an educational free-for-all, but agency, engagement, critical thinking applications, and flow as the re-defining characteristics of learning. 

This is not a fundamental re-write of all curriculum, where we throw out years of work, beloved projects, and start from scratch. We’re talking about making small changes that will profoundly impact your life as a teacher and the learning experience of the students. Small changes will shift education from a PUSH-based system to a PULL-based system to create a future-ready generation.

Small Changes: an Agile PULL-Based System

With the following small changes, there can be transformation.

Essential Questions: Open-ended essential questions allow students to create their answers based on the material that needs to be covered. We are still teaching our mandated scope and sequences, but by beginning the unit or lesson with an open-ended question, students have the opportunity to take ownership over their learning. With open-ended questions, there is no ONE answer; therefore, it captures students’ imagination, challenges biases, and hands ownership of the answer to the students from the beginning. 

Content Delivery: The delivery of content can be achieved through multiple modalities, which will still achieve the same goals as the traditional classroom. Instead of giving the same lecture 5 times a day, record the lecture, which allows students to access it at any time. Your kids that are asleep first period can watch the lecture later. They can pause or rewind to complete their notes without feeling rushed. Students with weak processing skills can re-watch as necessary. 

Diversify materials: Students learn through different modalities. Why not offer them the opportunity to learn the content in multiple ways? Create a playlist of videos that students can access, find primary and secondary sources for students to analyze, and put together a reading station that allows students to stretch their literacy skills. Allow students to curate their own learning materials, which will boost their engagement and agency in the learning process. 

Choice: Give students choice about how many different materials they need to utilize to have mastery of content. For example, students can choose to watch the lecture, take notes on videos, and annotate a reading to achieve the learning objectives for the lesson or unit. Eventually, students can build the skills to create their own video playlists or find readings that are appropriate for the class and content. 

Offering choices in content delivery empowers our students to build their metacognitive skills. They now must think about what materials to access and which will be most beneficial to them. They are still practicing the skills and learning the necessary content but have agency in their learning. They are PULLing the content and skills to them because of intrinsic motivation. By differentiating content delivery, the classroom has fundamentally shifted from PUSH to PULL.

Students pull as necessary to achieve their goals: they take ownership through their choices and pull content and material that fit their learning needs. 

Constant Application builds Critical Thinking Skills: Answering questions on a worksheet is NOT an application of knowledge. There is no higher-level thinking, no synthesis, and not a lot of effort. Students are not challenged in this exercise because they are copying and pasting answers. There is no neurological difference between copying from your friend’s notes and copying from your textbook. 

To achieve critical thinking, students must have the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way. Of course, if students are learning how to multiply fractions, they must practice them, but fractions can be tied to a real-life situation. Instead of a worksheet, they can build recipes, design a structure, or even write a story about the interactions of the numerators and denominators and how they solved the equation.

Time: These do not have to be extended projects that throw off scope and sequence. Instead of 20 minutes on a worksheet, have students work in groups to accomplish a goal using the content they just learned. They can create an advertisement, write a song, draw a political cartoon, or tell a story. If you are working with other departments, you can piggyback on their content to build connections in the curriculum. An example of this is having students write and perform a Greek myth (English) about the role of the President in the executive branch (Social Studies). 

Application forces students to employ their critical thinking skills because they must have a firm understanding of the content to apply it to a different situation. They cannot copy and paste the main idea of a story if they need to write a song about it. There is no cheating when authentic applications are used. Students must utilize content that they have PULLed towards them to synthesize in their application. Now students must know and prioritize information to PULL it together to create new material. 

Making small changes to change the classroom culture from a PUSH-based system to an Agile  PULL-based system is transformational. Classroom management issues will decrease because students will be engaged. Deep learning will occur because students will take ownership of their learning. Critical thinking skills will build and therefore lead to greater opportunities for application and connection building in the future. 

Pull-based education is achievable now. It does not take an elaborate rollout, expensive materials, or an extensive new curriculum. Every educator can meet their content and skills goals by making small changes that will profoundly impact all members of the classroom. 

If you need support, reach out. We’re here to help. 

Jessica Cavallaro

Jessica Cavallaro is the co-founder of The Agile Mind, which interweaves Agile frameworks into K-12 education. She is passionate about the benefits of project based learning and creating purposeful education to drive innovation through inquiry. She is an advocate for developing systems that give students agency. Jessica earned her Bachelor’s degree at Pace University and Master’s in Education from Mercy College.

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