Product or process?

Picture the scene. You walk into the reception area of your local primary school and you see the wonderful displays of artwork created by the children. There are paintings and drawings, and there are mobiles and models made from cardboard, silver paper and other materials, all resplendent in their vibrant colours. It is a bright celebration of learning and it showcases the creative talents of the children. Or does it? What about the children who are not as good at expressing themselves through painting or sculpture? Where are their pieces of artwork?

Sophie's painting of a cow is excellent and it takes pride of place in the centre of the display. But what you don't see is all the learning, thinking and the skills development that went into the mix leading up to Sophie's production of such a wonderful piece of art. What you don't see is the learning process, all the mistakes and corrections. All the learning. What you don't see is all of Sophie's previous rubbish cow paintings. Perhaps they should be on display as well? They would certainly demonstrate to anyone observing that this little girl has come a long way in the last few weeks, and has developed greater skills than she had before.

When did we ever get the idea that children's work must be perfect before it can be displayed, and that some kids' work is not good enough? I visit a lot of schools as a part of my role as a teacher educator, and it always strikes me when I enter a school reception area, that only the best children's paintings, photos and other artwork are on display. To see the less perfect ones you need to go into the classrooms, or into the kids art portfolios. Why is that? We are not running a production line, and we don't need quality control. Why shouldn't the kids express themselves in their own ways? If you are a teacher stand back and watch - you will find that they have extraordinary imagination, and their creative work doesn't have to be perfect to be good. They can express themselves creatively in more ways than you can ever imagine. All you have to do it create the conditions in which it can happen. Do so, and they will astound you.

Unfortunately, the practice of only allowing the display of perfect art work is symptomatic of a deeper underlying problem in many state funded schools. It is the age old question of product versus process, and it influences the delivery of the curriculum. It also dictates how assessment is conducted. If we are only interested in production of knowledge, then we will apply summative forms of assessment - exams and essays designed to test what students have remembered. If on the other hand we are more interested in the process of learning, we will design assessment methods that feed forward as well as back, showing students what they have done well and what they need to improve upon in their next pieces of work. Standardised testing does not prepare learners for the real world, nor does it provide teachers with anything more than a snapshot of where the student is at that point in time. On the other hand, process based assessment represents a long term plan, which supports learning over a period of time, a lot more effective than simply taking superficial and ultimately, meaningless measurements.

"We are now living in an age where the recipe is more important than the cake". - Charles Leadbeater

Image by Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

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Product or process? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Maryam Aqil said…
Hello and thank you very much for this very post. I am a new reader of your blog and even though I am from Pakistan, all that you write and think about is what I (or my colleagues, for that matter) experience here some time or the other... makes me think that bringing up children and doing all that is associated with teaching and learning are, well, universal experiences. I am glad I read your blog, and I wish you the very best. Thank you!
Teresa said…
Thanks Steve,this also ties up well with some work I am doing at the moment on e-portfolios as a way of presenting the learning story, hope you don't mind if I quote you :)
Lejon said…
Unfortunately we tend to test what is easy to test but what is easy to test is generally not worth testing. I agree completely with your argumentation about process versus ptoduct. I think we should use formative assessment much more than. However strong forces here in Sweden, among the political establishment are very much in favour of 'hard statistics' e.g. testing and summative assessment.
Anonymous said…
Hi Steve,

I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of assessing (and attaching value to) the process as well as, and perhaps more than the product.

However, can I throw this question into the mix: what if the process is not readily observable? I am thinking here in particular about assessing children, who may not as yet have the skills to verbalise (I hesitate to use the word 'reflect on') their learning.

My own two children (both of pre-school age) are a case in point here. Little as they are, the differences between their approaches to learning are enormous. My youngest (not yet 1) is very much a 'trial and error'-type - he will just keep at it and at it until he gets it right (and - at the moment quite literally - bang his head in the process). My eldest (nearly 4), however, is a very different kettle of fish. Everything she's learnt so far she seems to have acquired by observing and absorbing, until such time that she's confident she's 'got it', and then she'll just do it and get it right.

My worry is that the latter approach does not result in much observable behaviour or other type of 'interim product', which may possibly lead less 'understanding' teachers to think that she's 'slow'. Which she's not.

So, while I agree with you in principle, I don't think assessing the process is without its problems.
James Michie said…
Hi Steve, I agree with the principal underpinning your post. In terms of 'learning' process is always more important (although our exam system is not set up to recognise that). However, I think that what you present is also a false dichotomy... dependent on context. While it is (IMO) incumbent on us to engage learners in 'process' as it is within that 'deep learning' occurs, there is also something to be learned from the end product; either through a reflective/analytical evaluation or through the experience of working to deadlines.
LeaderLady said…
This is a great read, i am class rep for my early years in education and will be showing this to my lecturers and class! we are studying this at the moment, thank you
Steve Wheeler said…
Glad you found it useful. I hope the post is also of interest to the rest of your group.
Steve Wheeler said…
There is no dichotomy, false or otherwise, unless it is perceived to be thus. The process is always more important than the product, especially of the product (read the 'end result') is incorporated into the process. Go figure ;)
Anonymous said…
In my field the cake is more important than the recipe. Customers dont care about the cod our programs. They care about whether it's the best (for the money). In a job interview an employer will pick the best. With promotion the best will be promoted. One would hope they take into consideration enthusiasm and willingness to learn though.
Employers don't care about the process of how you got your D, they would pick the A star applicant.
Not saying its right, just the way it works.
Anonymous said…
As a parent I fully support your argument. Here's a case study for you...

My 10 year old son, like me before him, learns through experimentation and perseverance. In my day we were taught the process of learning before we were expected to learn. That doesn't seem to be the case today, as your post points out.

My sons teachers, since he started school at 5 years old, have focused on simple repetition of examinable content. When it comes to homework this means repeat the same piece until it is 100% correct. At times my son had so much repeat homework that he was working 9-5pm, too long for a 10 year old.

My wife and I eventually refused to allow the teacher to pile on "corrections" for the same piece of work over and over again. It was destroying his self-confidence, destroying any interest he had in learning and, frankly, making him miserable. He felt he could never get it right. He felt he had no time to play. He felt he was hopeless at Math, English, Science and every other subject (he never got to draw cows :-(

My wife and I decided to take things into our own hands. We took the feedback from the teacher and spent half an hour with him showing him where he had gone wrong. We didn't ask him to redo the work. We asked him to understand where his errors were. Then we asked him to do any new homework he had for that night.

Predictably the teacher objected to this. She claimed it would harm his exam results (translation: "it will harm my rolled up results"). We insisted, stating that we were more interested in him learning how to learn than how to recite (product vs process as you rightly call it).

I'm pleased to report that not only has he made progress in the process of learning he also got top marks in *all* of his exams (translation: "he makes his teacher look better than I believe she is").

Now, I used to be a lecturer. I have some understanding of how difficult it is to spend quality time with each student who needs it. I know it's not possible for teachers to spend 30 minutes per day with each student. But once we teach them to help themselves (that is once we teach them the process of learning) many students no longer need that support.

After just a single semester we no longer need to work with him every night. He does his work with very little guidance from us now. We taught him how to take the feedback from the teacher and use that to figure out where he went wrong. These days he only asks for help when he can't see the error.

What is more, when one realizes that the process of learning includes helping others understand we are not only creating a classroom full of students able to help themselves, but we create a classroom full of students who help one another. This frees up the teacher to spend time with those who are falling behind.

It's all about the process.

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