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Process vs. Product

December 01, 2014

Young children are almost completely process oriented. They open and close kitchen cabinets without ever considering what is inside. They paint or draw, lavishly stroking color across the paper, without any concern for making it look like something in particular. They stack up the blocks, knock them over, and stack them up again without ever trying to “build a house.”

Adults, on the other hand, are very product oriented. “What did you get on your spelling test?” Did you brush your teeth? (Wondering whether or not they used toothpaste and for how long would be considering the process, by the way.} Did you finish your homework? Did you clean up your toys? The list can go on and on.

Because they live with adults, children gradually become more and more focused on the outcome rather than the processes they use and therein lays the difficulty. Children who are praised or rewarded only for the outcome are even more susceptible to losing site of the joy that can be found in the process of learning.

Sometime during the 1970s, educational experts became aware of this tendency and took measures to correct the problem. Teachers were told to stop worrying about absolute accuracy, in math for example, and to focus on the processes children used to get an answer. The result was children who couldn’t add or subtract with any degree of accuracy. Teachers were told to stop worrying about misspelled words and poor punctuation and to let the children just express themselves. The result was children who couldn’t spell or write effectively.

So the pendulum swung back and today we are obsessed with outcomes as seen in the high-stakes standardized tests and core curriculum standards. The experts have defined a tremendously long list of outcomes that children must possess, by fourth grade, or by eighth grade, or by tenth grade in order to be considered educated. New Jersey, in particular, has been harshly criticized by the “experts,” for not adequately defining how children are supposed to acquire all these skills, facts, and competencies.

For example, the NJ Core Curriculum Standards state that by fourth grade a child will be able to effectively critique a play, a performance, and works of art using a well-written review as evidence of this competency. What exactly does that mean and how do I get a child of that age past, “I thought the show was really cool?” The public schools have a long list of other skills that must be mastered – a list so long that more than a few days on this one would be impossible to schedule.

The genius of Montessori education is that, here, the pendulum has never swung too far off center. Accuracy and competency are always expected but the children have a variety of materials, a personal, individualized, relationship with the teacher, and the freedom to make choices and to pursue outcomes according to an individualized time frame that considers the learning styles and needs of each individual child.

A casual observer may notice third graders working with square or cubic numbers and walk away thinking we push too hard and too fast. But spend some time with these children and you will see that not only have they chosen this work, and arrive at very accurate conclusions, but they are thoroughly enjoying the time they spend with all the beads, blocks, graph papers, and colored pencils that they have available to help them truly understand the processes they are using. Learning the life cycle and functions of plants from a textbook is very different from plucking an actual plant from the ground to observe its parts or setting up an experiment to see how the roots will grow in the direction of water.

The beauty of Montessori is that so much attention is paid to the processes a child employs to arrive at an outcome that the child comes away, not only with well-honed skills and great accuracy, but with a profound understanding of why the outcome is what it is. Typically, in a Montessori classroom, as soon as a child has accomplished any given skill, he or she will immediately ask for the next challenge. If the teacher is not immediately forthcoming, the child will find a peer and ask that peer to share a new material or to start researching another idea

Children are curious creatures. They want to understand everything. If the focus is only on “passing the test” the child learns that getting an A, even if it means cheating or taking shortcuts, is all that matters. Understanding doesn’t get graded and therefore doesn’t count!

Looking at these issues from another point of view, let’s consider the parent who is outcome oriented. If most of your conversations with your child start with questions like, “What did you get on your spelling test? Did you finish your homework? Did you finish reading the book for your book report?” then you are doing a great disservice to your child. Have you spent time teaching your child a few tricks to remember how to spell a difficult word? Have you looked at the homework and discussed key points to ensure that your child understands what he or she is doing? Have you read the book your child is reading and had conversations about the plot or the characters? Or did you instead buy the video so your child could “understand” the book in time to get the report written?

Parents of very bright children are often the worst offenders. They seem to have a compulsive need to continually see evidence that their child is progressing. These children are expected, by their parents, to do five pages in their math book instead of one or two. They must have the most spectacular display at the Science Fair, even if Morn or Dad did end up building most of it. They choose chapter books from the library long before they are ready, or able, to read and enjoy them. They cry when they make mistakes because they have learned that Mom and Dad want to see results!

Children who are not as gifted, quickly assume that they can never shine as brightly as some of their peers. Some just plain quit trying when, in fact, given more variety in the processes provided for them to use, they can be very successful in the final outcome. They just need a different path to follow and more time to get there. That’s why Montessori classrooms don’t teach addition, for example, with just pencils, papers, and a blackboard. There are five or six, seemingly different, materials available to allow for individual learning styles and preferences.

Most importantly, children are allowed the luxury of time – the time they need to find, and use, another PROCESS!

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