Process versus Product: The Knowledge Building Connection
I remember when I first started teaching back in the early 1990’s, it was exciting and challenging and everything was new – so much to be learned. I was determined to be the teacher that made a difference in students’ lives. My mind was filled with ideas from reading John Dewey and Barrie Bennett. As I stood in that first classroom on that first day, trying not to let anyone see how nervous I was, I kept thinking, “This is it, I’ve made it, I’m here – this is my destination, the end of my journey to become a teacher!”
And yet, more than twenty years later, here I am, sitting at my desk writing this blog post. It is exciting and challenging and everything is new – so much to be learned. I am determined to be the teacher that makes a difference in students’ lives. My mind is filled with ideas from reading Marlene Scardamalia and Michael Fullan. As I type this thinking about people actually reading it, trying not to let anyone see how nervous I am, I keep thinking, “This is it, I’ve made it, I’m here.”
That’s the funny thing about destinations, they only seem like the end at the time, as you look forward. When you look back, they are much more like stepping stones across a stream, only a small part, a single step in the journey. That thought leads to the age-old question, what is more important, the journey or the destination? While that is an interesting topic, it is not what I’ve been asked to explore today – though, with just a small slide to the left, you can see how it connects. Today we’re going to explore process and product in education, and the role of Knowledge Building (KB) in each.
Going back to the 1990’s for a moment, I remember many conversations about the balance between process and product. Many educators had strong opinions one way or the other. “Sure, process is important but we can only give marks for products,” “It doesn’t matter how they solve the problem, as long as they get the right answer” and “I’m a process guy all the way, products are just the last step.” That last one was me, way back then, very sure that I had it all figured out.
A process is a series of steps designed to lead to a particular outcome or goal. It is exploration, a journey, it is fluid, dynamic. A product is the outcome or goal of a process. It is static, solid, fixed in a single moment, a snapshot, usually an artifact created through that process. In terms of education, you could say that process is how learning happens and product is what has been learned. How learning happens relates to pedagogy, teaching and learning styles, philosophies, classroom management, etc. The product artifacts could be test results, oral presentations, visual displays, physical or digital models, essays, etc. You get the idea. To use the example of an iceberg, process is the entire iceberg while product is only the tip, the smallest part that is visible above the water line. What we see is the product and not the process that supports it and makes it visible.
In case the iceberg example did not completely give away my bias, I am still a process guy. My views on product, however, have changed a bit – I see more of a balance between the two than I did when I first started my teaching journey – and it was getting involved with KB when I really started thinking about the relationships and how they work together.
Back to KB – how does KB fit into the process versus product debate? Let’s take a look. There are twelve KB principles. We are not going to go through all of them, however, we are going to consider a few. To put this into context, I asked my students from this past semester to think about how they used the principles throughout the class. After a bit of thought and discussion, I asked them to pick the two principles that were the most closely linked to process and the two most closely linked to product in their opinion. The responses varied right across all twelve principles. Some students felt strongly that symmetric knowledge advancement was product – an end goal for us to work towards. Others felt just as strongly that it was process – describing how to work together to build knowledge as a society. Knowledge building discourse was also divided within the class between those that felt it was a process for sharing and building and improving ideas, while others saw the discourse itself, as an end goal of developing students’ skills to the point where an effective KB circle is even possible. It was very interesting and fun to explore this kind of thinking – it is also an example of how to use KB in your classroom as a process for developing deeper thinking. So cool!
Students connect KB to process and product
My personal favourite KB principle is epistemic agency (taking responsibility for our own learning). As process, this principle focuses on setting directions, making choices, asking questions, choosing sources, making connections and discovering the personal connections to how we each learn. This is my learning process. What do I want to learn and how do I want to learn about it? Why is it important to me to do things this way? As product, this principle focuses on choosing the shape and function of the demonstration or artifact, owning the creation – making it our own, and choosing the moment to pause the learning journey to share. This is what I have learned, this is how I will share it with you, and this is why it is important.
My favourite KB principle
The example that came to my mind while debriefing this exercise with one of my classes was a pendulum. Process is the arc or movement of the pendulum while product is the apex, the moment in time when the pendulum’s swing stops, a natural balance between force and gravity, and then the process takes over again and everything is moving in a different and new direction. That product, that moment, while it is the ending point of one arc, it is also the starting point for a new arc, a new process. A student in my class had this to say, “Every comment someone makes in a KB circle, or even just in class, is a product of their thinking. It is the end result of a series of thoughts, questions, information all being gathered together into a single comment. At the same time, it is also part of the process, a single piece of information leading to a larger product further down the line.” A second student then added, “Even though we are all working on different ideas, the things we share as products become part of everyone else’s process” and a third added, “None of us are just working on one process for one product, we all have multiple things happening at once, and they all connect to create a bigger picture.” It was at that moment that I realized I should have asked them to write this blog and just gone home for a nap.
Students link KB principles to curriculum action verbs
One of the things I am known for with my students is asking them to always consider the “so what?” question. What are the implications of whatever it is we are discussing, exploring, analyzing? How does thinking about KB as it connects to process and product impact our journey as teachers?
Well, here are my thoughts:
- It makes us more aware of the importance of our own thinking as learners (teachers, students, everybody).
- We can apply this to our teaching practice – what are the processes and products we use as teachers? What biases do we incorporate into our practice? What do we value more?
- Recognize the impact that the process has on the final product – so many choices, who gets to make them? Why? Is there only one process? Only one product?
- Build AER (assessment, evaluation, and reporting) into both process and product – how does your process reflect your KB journey? How does your product? How do we capture thinking? Learning? Evidence of understanding? How do the choices you made during the process and product demonstrate your understanding?
Teaching and learning are two things that I love. The challenge, the mental stimulation, the moment when you see or feel the light come on, the opportunity to share pride in achievement as a class, as a community (that is another one of those pesky KB principles by the way). If we do not know why we are doing something, if we cannot follow our thinking and share our thoughts, how do we measure our accomplishments? How do we help each other? Sharing KB with my classes, as co-learners, has allowed me to see learners taking pride in what they can accomplish, no matter how simple it may seem, this is something that makes a world of difference.
Looking ahead: The next step of using KB is the Knowledge Forum, a digital platform for collaborative exploration of ideas based on the KB principles. It allows for more people to join in the process more directly. It also allows the thinking and evolution of ideas to become more visible. If you are interested in learning more, exploring more, bouncing around some ideas, or just chatting please feel free to contact me via email (email@example.com) to start the conversation.
Pieter Toth has been a secondary school teacher for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board since 1993 teaching mostly Business and Social Justice/Global CONNECT. His teaching philosophy focuses on the co-creation of learning environments where all learners feel safe enough to take risks and learn from mistakes. He considers himself to be a learner first, foremost, and in all things. He also thinks he is funny and good looking, so who can really say for sure.