Teachers: push or pull?

Photo by toffeehoff via flickr.com
Photo by toffeehoff via flickr.com

There are countless approaches to teaching, but in this post I want to share one simple idea that has intrigued me for years. This question has helped me evaluate my own teaching and understand (without judging) the teaching of others.

So, here’s the big question:Are you a pusher, or are you a puller? For this approach, we’re going to crudely divide all actions into two broad categories.

By pushing, I mean instruction that is practical, specific and task-based. Pushing a student means understanding their current limitations and devising effective strategies for improvement. For example, if one of my students had trouble with the minor section of their piece, I could assign them minor scales (maybe 2-3 keys a week). I could be even more concrete by proscribing the format of the scales and exact tempo markings. We could take a similar approach with the piece in question, devising practice strategies, variations and specific tempo markings.

By pulling, I mean instruction that is idealistic, general and idea-based. Pulling a student means engaging their mindset and motivating them to operate on a higher level. Let’s take the same student from the previous paragraph, but this time we will spend all our efforts inspiring them: we could play a stellar recording, model the piece by performing it beautifully for them, discuss the character and emotion of the piece, and engage the student’s underlying (latent?) love of music.

I find the terms push and pull appropriate for this discussion – I can visually imagine a teacher getting behind their student, digging in their heels and pushing them forward; or I can imagine a teacher beckoning a student forward and pulling them toward improvement.

I don’t think either category is “better” than the other – each has their time and place. Intuiting which approach (or mix of approaches) to take for specific moments is part of the complexity and subtlety that make teaching incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating.

I get the most out of the push/pull question when I observe other teachers. In the past, I often found myself watching a teacher work with a student (say, in a masterclass) and thinking their approach was all wrong. Maybe they seemingly ignored a technical or mechanical deficiency in the student and instead talked only about their musical/artistic choices. Or perhaps they dove into technical minutiae and ignored a musically flat performance. In those situations, I was often surprised when the “wrong” approach resulted in a huge improvement from the student! I started to notice that some teachers seemed to gravitate toward pushing (we could call them natural problem-solvers) while others were exceptional at pulling (some of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met), while others had a knack for switching between approaches depending on the student and the context of the class.

This concept continues to intrigue me and to help me understand the teachers I encounter without rushing to judge their approach. I hope it gives you something to think about in your own teaching!