Process vs. Product

David was a university student. He had a creative mind and a penchant for media. At the time, I was a technology trainer and media assistant at the same university. I helped students and faculty learn to use a variety of technology and software. Our number one rule as media assistants was to not touch the mouse when assisting people. Period. This was not to be mean or to avoid spreading germs, but to follow the fundamental idea that in order for someone to effectively learn a skill, they had to do it themselves. Not watch someone do it or hear someone talk about it, but actually do it.

David was a frequent visitor of our media lab. He would come into the lab, sit down at a computer, and begin working on a media project. The thing you need to know about David however, is he would come in with lofty goals for complex video and image editing projects. These projects were always well outside of his skill level, or in the words of Lev Vygotsky, well beyond his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Whenever he walked in the door, I knew it would not be long until he moseyed over to my desk to ask for help. When he inevitably did, I would oblige and sit down with him at his computer. David would then explain to me his vision for the project. Ignoring the fact that his ideas were outside his ZPD, I would begin to guide him through the process and encourage him to experiment and try things with the software to increase his skills. Without fail, five minutes into the project he would push his chair away from the desk, throw his hands up in the air, and say “You do it.”

Now the fact that David’s goals were outside of his ZPD is beside the point. I am all for helping people achieve lofty goals. The issue with David is his goal was not to learn, his goal was to get his project done. Whether he did it himself or I did it for him, his sights were set on the product. But as my good friends at Pepperdine University say, “learning is about the process, not the product.” In order to learn and improve, we must struggle through difficult tasks. We must be willing to experiment and fail. Having a community around us, or even a personal guide to help facilitate our learning, is invaluable and a necessary part of the process. But these people cannot do it for us. They are facilitators. They are there to point us in the right direction and help us over hurdles, but the effort must come from us. We must be motivated to try and to improve. We must seek the skills we need for the tasks at hand. We must reflect on what we’ve done and determine where to go next.

If you are a teacher, you may be thinking this describes your own students. They don’t want to work. They just want you to give them the answers. But before you begin blaming your students, realize they are doing exactly what the educational system has trained them to do. School has trained them to value good grades over learning. They have been taught that it doesn’t matter how well they learn as long as they do well on the test. High stakes testing leaves no room for failure, but gives students one chance to demonstrate the skills acquired through a long learning process. If they don’t perform well, we assume they didn’t learn anything. But if we’re honest, we’ll admit our traditional tests are not even a good indication of the skills we wanted them to acquire in the first place.

This idea of process over product has implications for both how we facilitate students and how we live and work as educators. For students, how can we change classrooms to emphasize the process of learning over the product? How can we encourage our students to explore and discover? How can we show them that failure is good as long as they keep trying? For educators, are we embodying this principle ourselves? Do we see teaching as a process that we are continually seeking to improve? Are we constantly learning and changing or are we satisfied with our current product?

Written by Drew McConnell