The answer defines not only your personal teaching philosophy, but also the daily practices in your classroom.
When learning is viewed as a product, and the same performance measure applies to all students, learning facilitation can be reduced to cookie-cutter teaching: same pieces of information and instruction are seen sufficient for all students. This is also visible in classroom practices: proving students with a template and asking them to copy that – whether it is an “art” project, notes, homework, an essay or anything else. There is not much room for individualization or differentiation, because the products are seen as the measure of learning – which of course is not reality, but may satisfy administrators and policymakers.
In a product-centered learning environment emphasis is often in doing activities, either teacher-made or others, or the ones provided by the publisher – and getting them right, because they are often graded. Skilled and obedient students comply with these requests and try hard to get their tasks done right, yet there are many students who just leave them undone. Completed products may show the “level” of each student, and let the teacher know who needs more practice in writing, multiplication or something else, but they don’t tell when the student acquired the skill, or if s/he is more advanced it it. Pre-designed materials are handy and easy to use, but they often lead to cookie-cutter teaching, simply because they were designed for another group of students in different educational setting with diverse connections to the subject. Your group of students is unique!
What about viewing learning as a process? Many things will change from the previously described situations: the first premise is that because students begin their daily/weekly/yearly learning from different levels of knowledge and understanding, they also will end up in different competency levels. And that is okay, honestly. We are not clones. Students shouldn’t be treated like ones.
When learning is understood primarily as a process differentiation and individualization are natural consequences. Assessment becomes comparing your achievement to your previous level of individual proficiency or competency, not against the achievements of your peers. Student evaluations are extremely non-punitive by nature: mistakes and second attempts are not only allowed but treasured, because they show the growth of understanding and the height of the learning curve. Isn’t this the recipe for providing the experiences of success for each and every student? And from educational research we already know how important that genuine thrill of achievement is for intrinsic motivation to learn.
Worksheets, exercises, activities and even homework are individualized, because learners have diverse needs and the teacher wishes to accommodate every student’s needs. As you can imagine there is not much need for cookie-cutter activities in these classrooms, but flexibility for students to choose within well-defined limits and pick activities they find meaningful or are interested in doing. I have heard people say how students will not do what they need to do, but what pleases them. Funny enough, students who get to choose usually learn much more than those forced into performing and producing, and they often pick tasks that are almost too hard for them. The same phenomenon happens when you let students choose their homework, from an appropriate selection, of course – and it is harder for even an under-performing student to explain why s/he didn’t do the homework s/he got to choose.
Approaching learning as an individual process helps us refocus learning and teaching: the student is in the nexus of her/his own learning, and the oh-so-tiring power struggle is minimized. I know most of my teachers and readers are bound to the state/national/other high stakes testing – yet, I think approaching learning as a process is applicable everywhere, because independent learners also perform better in the tests.