Learning – Process versus Product

Don’t worry, this isn’t a piece about market forces and production lines, although I am sure those topics deserve some attention in these tricky economic times. No, my small claim to ‘fame’ is around student learning and more importantly, how students learn, allowing for individual differences within that grand scope. After 25 years of teaching and seeing students strive to achieve and, more often than not, even exceed their own expectations, one comes to understand a few things about how students learn best. It’s actually not rocket science but importantly, steeped in educational research. As professional educators, we are guided by what is evidence-based and not just anecdotal or our own personal experience. The latter certainly has a place but the former confirms that our gut, together with formative assessment data gathered along the way, can be trusted. Nonetheless, having checks and balances in place is always a good thing. After all, it is the research that validates, and therefore allows for, the very real day to day place of that gut instinct; one’s professional judgement. I say that not because summative formal assessment data is less important but because the formative day to day learning (the process) is what guides students toward those end points (the product).

I want to focus on the most significant factor fundamental to learning and that is the recognition that learning is indeed a process. Underpinning that process are other elements like patience, commitment, engagement, perseverance, resilience, and perhaps most importantly, trust.

So, what do we mean by process? Are we talking about the noun that keeps the participant active and in control, investing in them a sense of personal agency? Or, the verb, which despite being a doing word, renders the participant inactive because things happen to them, aka the salmon in the example below.

process
/ˈprəʊsɛs/

noun

  1. a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.
    “military operations could jeopardize the peace process”

verb

  1. perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it.
    “the salmon is quickly processed after harvest to preserve the flavour”

Before we digress and get lost in the metaphorical salmon of life, let’s bring it back to our students. Presumably we all want the active, engaged and invested student whose final outcomes (the product) reflect the acquisition of new and refined knowledge and skills. Some students are wired to value the process, many more learn how to become that way, once they get wind of how. Submitting to the process is crucial. With that, however, comes the inevitable struggle. Learning can be innovative and challenging but sometimes not so comfortable, and not so immediately validating because the learning is in progress; it happens in stages and often takes time, as one path leads onto another, and not always in linear fashion.

Sounds messy but that’s ok because learning isn’t always in neat and tidy boxes but it does tend to be sequential. New understanding is developed over time and based on a number of inputs – picture building with blocks where you can go across and up, there can even be cantilevers and insets but they only hold with solid foundations. Knowledge construction is the same – it can take different directions; some ideas and concepts can hold differing weights but the success of the overall achievement depends on the original supporting bits. Learning in general is contingent upon the student knowing the purpose, the relevance to their world, whether it links to prior learning, whether they already have skills they can transfer and draw upon, and if not, which new ones they will need to learn.

Learning new things can be exciting but there can also be trepidation and for some, untold anxiety. So, knowing upfront that good, deep learning will involve a struggle and sometimes a re-negotiation of cognitive pathways is helpful. Forewarned is forearmed, right? It is if we are all on the same page – teachers, parents and students all need to know that a student will go through a process of cognitive dissonance as they come to terms with what they don’t know and then try to figure out how to bridge the gap. It’s what James Nottingham calls the Learning Pit. An array of different images try to capture this notion and within each are two main propositions: that feeling out of your depth is a normal experience and that you don’t need to struggle through on your own. In fact, collaboration and a positive, growth-oriented mindset (the power of ‘not yet’) are critical for the success of students who authentically engage with and embrace learning as a process.

So, as we settle into semester two with what I hope are new learning goals to see out the year, the next time your child worries or complains that the learning is hard, perhaps resist the temptation to rescue and instead, consider asking them a few questions: have they understood what the task involves; what wider learning is it connected to? If they don’t know, what further questions might they ask of their teacher? If they are learning new concepts, ask them if they can tell you about that concept in their own words; see if they have researched the ideas and produced summary notes, or highlighted any notes provided to single out the important points. When they need to do some extended writing of their own, you can support them by asking if they have understood the success criteria and whether they have the necessary thinking organisers (tools we like to call scaffolds) to help arrange their ideas and points before writing. This is valuing the drafting process. Drafting – yes, it invites the suggestion that the end product will be the outcome of several attempts, each one more refined than the last, valuing the feedback moments (verbal and written / formal and informal / teacher and peers) provided along the way.

Learning can be straightforward and easy but that isn’t always the most engaging experience for the student and usually means surface learning that hasn’t really engaged and stretched your child very far. Being open to feedback – the most powerful driver of performance – is one of the most important things we can teach your child. Receiving feedback, positive and negative, is something they will encounter long after they leave school and so a readiness and disposition to see feedback as part of the learning process is really important. Encouraging them to rise above the binary of good and bad to focus on what is constructive would be the most helpful. We want our students to receive feedback and reflect upon their performance to improve the next time. This is the feedback loop.

Undertaking self-evaluation is in the current vernacular “next level”. Being able to critically evaluate one’s own work against the set criteria and suggesting what may still need to be done to achieve the standard required (and then later implementing that) is the pinnacle; the sort of behaviours we associate with invested learners. Imagine that scenario – a child who knows what is required of them so well that upon reflection they can identify their strengths and weaknesses and articulate it so that the next time they undertake a task it is even better. That is a child who is operating from a position of strength with untold benefits for their learning, positively impacting their social and emotional qualities, imbuing in them a heightened sense of self and broadening their world view.


About the author

Assunta Di Gregorio is the Deputy Head of High School, Teaching and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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