Archive | September, 2012

Is Learning a Product or a Process?

30 Sep

The answer to this simple but very important question 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 an example of the ready product 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 greatly satisfy administrators and policymakers.

In a product-centered learning environment emphasis is often in doing activities – worksheets, charts, pre-designed projects – that are either teacher-made or provided by the publisher of the curriculum. The important part of completing these products is getting them right because these products are usually 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. Assessment reflects memorization and regurgitation [1]. Pre-designed materials  are handy and easy to use, but they often lead to surface learning 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! They deserve instruction designed for them!

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 of acquisition and elaboration of information [2], the natural consequences in the classroom are ongoing differentiation and individualization. Assessment becomes an individual quest to compare your own current achievement to your previous level of proficiency or competency – instead of comparing your learning 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 in deeper 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. (APA, 2015)

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. This supports students’ growth towards self-regulated learners!

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. Independent learners often engage in deep learning.

Edit on March 20, 2017:

It seems that overemphasizing competition in education leads to the perception of learning as a product instead of emphasizing the learning process, and pushing the teacher-centered instructional model [6]. The decision is made on the level of curriculum and instructional design when learning outcomes are defined and aligned with the values of the educational system or the institute or district. Noddings [7] discusses the aims of education in curriculum development,  and states how the curriculum for 21st century must promote the attitude of continuing interest to learn. This is an important part of viewing learning as a process vs. product, and a sustainable choice for knowledge societies where individual, ongoing learning is crucially important.



More about learning as a process:

We often talk about learning without defining what it means. This causes confusion! [3] For the sake of clarity, I am using the definition of Illeris (2003) while discussing the learning process: “external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of acquisition and elaboration” (p. 398).

Definition of learning as a process as seen on Lachman (1997)[4]: First, learning may not include a change in behaviour (this would exclude classical conditioning). Second, it is important not to confuse learning with the product of learning. Observable change is a product.

Please also check this page: Process or product? and these links: Quality of learning process and Neverending learning

My book about supporting learning process: Choosing How to Teach

Have questions or want to chat about learning process? Please Tweet or FB about it!



[1] Baker, E. L., & Gordon, E. W. (2014). From the Assessment OF Education to the Assessment FOR Education: Policy and Futures. Teachers College Record, 116(11).

[2] Illeris, K. (2003). Toward a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 22(4), 396-406.

[3] American Psychiological Association (APA),

[4] De Houwer, J., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Moors, A. (2013). What is learning? On the nature and merits of a functional definition of learning. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(4), 631-642.

[5] Lachman, S. J. (1997). Learning is a process: Toward an improved definition of learning. The journal of psychology: interdisciplinary and applied131(5), 477-480.

[6] O’Neill, G. (2010). Initiating curriculum revision: exploring the practices of educational developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(1), 61-71.

[7]   Noddings, N. (2013). Curriculum for the 21st century. In D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton (Eds.). The curriculum studies reader (4th ed.) (399-405). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.


HOW instead of WHAT

9 Sep

Why do we so often emphasize the frames or structure over deep understanding? Knowing what something is only takes you so far. Isn’t knowing how something works or how it is connected much more valuable than just knowing it exists? And the very same principle applies to teaching: understanding how to help your students learn makes a real difference for both the effectiveness of learning and for classroom management, too.

Patricia Buoncristiani discusses this in beautiful details, and reminds us about the importance of improving teacher education:

She says how effective teachers employ good strategies:

“Above all this, these teachers know how to engage their kids in activities that grab their intellects, their senses and their emotions.

They also know that if they can effectively teach their students how to think skillfully, they will be able to approach everything that goes on in the classroom from an intelligent, thoughtful point of view. By teaching the behaviors that characterize thoughtful, successful people their students will know how to listen with empathy, to manage their impulsivity, to think and work interdependently.

Where do our teachers learn all this? In my experience teacher education programs today offer very little explicit teaching about the HOW of teaching. They focus on the WHAT.

And I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. Knowing how to create an optimal learning environment in your classroom makes a huge difference. How could we help more teachers achieve this (while waiting for the teacher education to be improved)?