Process Over Product

This is a concept that will not sit well with a lot of people who are used to the traditional system of getting good grades, landing that perfect job or finally getting to marry the woman of their dreams. Our society is so heavily entrenched both in setting our sights on and reaching goals that sometimes it feels like our entire existence is based entirely on the acquisition of something other. Denial of the importance of the process of creation in exchange for the hope of something more shifts the focus of thinking away from the imagination and towards the predetermined goals of the mighty curriculum.

Early childhood educators have made good inroads in challenging the traditional product-driven style of education. Play-based learning, freedom to explore and a trust in children’s natural ability to learn are concepts  that feature heavily in early years programmes in a range of countries. However, ambitious, exam focussed, academically driven pre-schools continue to have a strong foothold in many places so the concepts here will still be a challenge to the notion that a child must achieve to succeed.

The interesting thing about success is the way in which individuals choose to define success within their own families, and the variation in how that ends up looking on a more global scale.  I’ve worked with children and families for over 25 years and during that time have encountered rich and poor, educated and not, liberal and conservative families. I feel that my exposure to different beliefs is quite diverse and yet, through all of those years, few have been the times when I have met a parent who wanted anything other for their children than for them to ‘be happy.’ 

In fact, I was so blown away by this apparent contradiction in parental ambitions and more global manifestations of product-based value, that I secretly conducted a bit of informal, unscientific and definitely not double-blind research. Whilst working in a school where the pupils were exclusively the offspring of wealthy, educated business people, I snuck into my conversations with parents a question about what it was that they ultimately wanted for their child.  Almost entirely without exception, they all said that what they really wanted for them was to be happy.

Why is my entirely unscientific research relevant to a discussion about the value of process over product in a problem solving context? Because almost unilaterally, a product-based education does not include ‘happiness’ as a metric for success. We know that living in the moment, enjoying the experiences of the here and now and finding value in that which is available to us are the fundamental behaviours of happy people. Instinct alone teaches us that children who work within a system that accepts intellectual diversity, which values creativity and where a fear of failure does not drive decision-making are more likely to engage with their own academic pursuits.

Why, if every parent just wants their child to be happy and happiness is firmly entrenched in the opportunity to explore one’s own ambitions, do we have a system that is so intent on cramming children into a way of being which makes it so difficult for them to be happy? Rigid, time-dependent curricula, emphasis on results and the eschewing of creative subjects for ever-higher attainment in those ‘academic’ subjects deemed most worthy leaves no space for a child to pursue their own interests or develop their own unique passions. The end products of entry into a better school, better results and a better degree have become the markers of an educational programme’s success rather than the well-being, satisfaction and personal engagement of the individuals within it.

We have created a high-stress, exam-driven series of increasingly-complicated hurdles for children to jump in the pursuit of academic ‘success’ whilst paying little to no attention to what they are gaining from the experiences of the present moment. Are we asking ourselves why ever-younger children are being diagnosed with stress-based emotional disorders and suicide rates amongst teenagers in the developed world climb steadily higher? What is the correlation between increasing academic pressure, an increased emphasis on outcomes through growing national and international testing regimes, an increase in the emphasis placed on the importance of doing things now so that you can have more later, and the fact that children are less likely now, than ever, to be happy with their lives in the here and now?

This is precisely why I advocate a style of problem solving that focuses on the process rather than the product.  Of course we often end up with products at the end of a lot of the activities that we do – this is only natural. But our emphasis, whether it is in discussions, debriefs or the planning of an activity, is always on what the children will get out of taking part in the activity itself, not in the completion of it.

We place equal value on an idea conceived but not carried out as a fully-functioning model of the inside of a whoosimawhatsit.  The ability to focus on what is being done, taking the time to test and modify ideas, not worrying about getting things done for a deadline or whether there is going to be an A grade at the end of it mean that we are encouraging children to dream big and not let their imaginations be bound by the fear of failure.

This is always, exactly, the point where some smarty pants pipes up with something along the lines of ‘well if they aren’t made to finish things and they never have to think about reality when developing their ideas, how are they ever going to learn to function in the real world?’ OK, first of all, for a child of 3, the next 15 years of their life is the real world so arguably that child should be given the opportunity to live in that world rather than spend that 15 years preparing for the next phase of their lives.  Pretty much everyone can see the sense in that, so I’m not going to labour the point.

But here is the important bit – those 15 years are the years in which we are giving the child all of the tools and equipment that they need to function in that next phase.  Raise your hand if you’ve applied the Pythagorean Theorem even once since you left school. Apart from those three people who just raised their hands, the rest of us never used that piece of information once we regurgitated it on a test designed to ‘prove’ how much we knew.  Therefore, it should not be too difficult for us to agree that knowing the Pythagorean Theorem is not a life skill.

Now raise your hand if, in your adult life, you’ve ever been called on to apply common sense, humour or creativity to get yourself out of a difficult situation. Raise your hand if you’ve ever needed to dig deep to find the self-confidence to address a boss or a difficult co-worker. Raise your hand if you ever needed to start over when the project you were responsible for wasn’t turning out the way you planned.  Did your A in your 10th grade Roman History test get you out of those predicaments, or did you need to rely on your ingenuity, strength of character or resilience to succeed?

Focusing on the process of creating, imagining and believing, gives children resilience, the ability to adapt to change and the self-confidence to know that they are capable of eventually coming up with a workable solution. A child who has learned to present their ideas with the confidence of knowing that they aren’t going to ‘fail’ if it’s not a good idea is more likely to be the sort of person who presents ideas in the first place.  Understanding that things might not go to plan and that is okay, will prepare children for a real world in which things often do not go to plan.

I appreciate that participating in the activities within this book will not be enough to overthrow the established pedagogy of our modern system of education. Further, I am not suggesting that you ought to deny your children the cultural capital of those As that they will need to get into university and then to get a job, etc etc. But by remembering what a child needs to be satisfied in the here and now, by providing opportunities for them to participate in a process-based form of education and by creating an environment that it a little more geared toward sucking everything possible out of the current moment rather than always striving higher for something else, we are giving them the one thing that every parent says they want for their child – a way to be happy.

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

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