Should process trump content?

August 23, 2009 at 8:49 am
filed under Classroom, Pedagogy
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You know, I used to think this. I used to think that as long as we taught the right tools our kids would be able to use them anywhere. They’d just plug in the right content and be done with it. It was the process that they needed to learn. Who cared about all that stuff we’re learning about, all that content-y stuff. That was irrelevant. As a teacher I thought I could teach just about anything – I was focusing on process so it didn’t matter how well I knew the content.

But you know what? Experience is shifting that view. I’ve been teaching for 13 years now and am constantly working at different levels, teaching different subjects, mainly to kids who learn in alternative ways. Last year was the first time I taught attempted to teach Grade 10 Math. Ditto for Grade 11 Economics. Math, I gave up on. After the first term I switched with another teacher who was perfectly happy not having to grade the English essays I traded for it.

The thing is I was so unfamiliar with the content that I could not merge it with process. I know how to teach/model different ways to help kids think, to help them think together and to visualize it both personally and within a community. That’s one of the reasons why I offered to teach this class. Last year was the first year of Quebec reform in Grade 10. Reform is competency-based learning and is very much centered around methodology and student-centered learning processes. My instinct was to focus on process and just plug in the content as I go.

What a disservice to the students and what a frustration for me. I felt highly incompetent as a teacher. Though I know process, I had almost no idea what to do with it in the face of the content I was teaching myself as I went, just keeping a step or two ahead of the students. How could I possibly challenge the students who already knew the stuff or who got it right away? I spent much more time on classroom management in that class than in others. Even with the same group of students once I started teaching them English.

Courses like English and Ethics, or History. Those I could do. I know those courses very well. I was able to use collaborative learning methodologies because I could keep a finger on the heart beat of what we were learning as we were going through the process of learning. I could helicopter back and forth from process to content very easily – say, from organization of an analysis (be it on paper or in some kind of a multimedia format) to using appropriate terminology as they analyzed different text.

That’s from the teaching perspective. I also could feel the confidence of my students in me grow. They know when you don’t know your stuff. It is a disservice to be a teacher and to not know your content intimately. I don’t just mean knowing it, I mean knowing it.

So – a year ago I never thought I would say this but I am now – we can not allow process to trump content. Ok, it’s a momentous occasion, I’ll say it again.

We can not allow process to trump content.

They both need to be there. The problem is that for a long time (and still, in some places, ok, maybe many places) content has been allowed to trump process. Education has a long history of teachers shoveling content down the brains of their students using whatever process worked for them. One.

I think that in order to counterbalance that history some people are bending too far in the direction of process/methodology (what we call cross-curricular competencies in Quebec) and are forgetting the important role that content does play in the classroom, in teacher education, in teacher placement, in learning.

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  1. Marcy Webb

    on August 23, 2009 at 9:12 am

    I agree. Effective learning and teaching cannot happen without content and process.

    That said, I taught at a progressive school in upstate NY for six years. Process far outweighed content in the minds of the admin. And to the students' deficit. In fact, if one tried to raise a conversation about content, she would be looked at as if she had eight heads.

    While a focus on process sounds more “progressive” throwing content under the proverbial bus is ignorant and short-sighted.

  2. TracyRosen

    on August 23, 2009 at 9:32 am

    I agree Marcy, the conversation should definitely be about 'and' not 'or'.

    Hard to believe people in administration would think that way. Or maybe what I want to say is that I wish there were more administration who didn't think/lead the way you described (or in the flip side – where you become the 8-headed monster for suggesting process).

  3. elonahartjes

    on August 24, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Tracy
    I agree with you totally. Process cannot trump content. My own teaching experience taught me this

  4. mijo

    on August 25, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Hi Tracy…. i agree with you!!

    We need it all: BELONGINGS/ATTACHMENT
    MASTERY/ACHIEVEMENT
    INDEPENDENCE/AUTONOMY
    GENEROSITY/ALTURISM

    PROCESS IS CRITICAL BUT SO IS TEACHING TOWARD MASTERY….

    be well… mike

  5. fordee

    on August 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    I agree. In all things Moderation. :)
    You have to be careful with going too far towards content or process ONLY.

  6. TracyRosen

    on August 26, 2009 at 6:06 am

    Thanks for your replies. Are there any people who feel that we must go a bit over the center line in either process or content? I'd love to hear your why's!

  7. mijo

    on August 26, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Hey Tracy…hope this finds you well. nice end of summer day here in southern new jersey!

    I will take a shot…. i think process happens first and with some kids must happen first.

    By process i am thinking of making connections with our students.

    So one question i may ask…. what process do you use to establish connections with your students?

    In your school… what process does the school have to connect all their kids to an adult who cares?

    I think its important to remember…we do not teach subjects we teach people.

    be well…. mike

  8. Angela Stockman

    on August 30, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with my husband many years ago, when I first began teaching English. He's a huge history buff and at one point made the statement that those who don't know history can't teach English as well as those who do. Content is important!
    When I teach the writing process, a good portion of what I'm sharing with students is actually content-based. I couldn't agree with you more.

  9. TracyRosen

    on August 31, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Interesting twist on process. The post was about processes for learning, methodologies – like how to organize research findings, how to take notes on what we learn, how to collaborate with others, how to make decisions throughout the learning process…

    But making connections with our students is certainly one process that may trump all others. Even so, I do not think it can be distinct from content. What is it we make connections around and about? That is the content.

    Processes that I use for connecting – consistency in action, laughter, establishing connections (via group parent meeting and phone calls) with families, listening, being there. The content is the student, as well as the subjects I teach. Example. This year I am teaching art. I know that there are a number of students who are interested in graffiti art in my class. So I designed my first theme around that, Art in Public Spaces, allowing room for non-graffiti study for students who aren't interested in it. The students and their interests are my starting point content. I hook them through themselves and then expand.

    I teach somewhat apart from the rest of our school but our school is trying to establish connecting processes as well. They have created a 15 minute block during the day where small groups of students (I think around 15) are with a teacher in reading groups. This is to instill, if not a love at least time for, reading in our busy days. At the same time it allows students to connect with a teacher around something that is not grade based. It's a start.

  10. TracyRosen

    on August 31, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Interesting twist on process. The post was about processes for learning, methodologies – like how to organize research findings, how to take notes on what we learn, how to collaborate with others, how to make decisions throughout the learning process…

    But making connections with our students is certainly one process that may trump all others. Even so, I do not think it can be distinct from content. What is it we make connections around and about? That is the content.

    Processes that I use for connecting – consistency in action, laughter, establishing connections (via group parent meeting and phone calls) with families, listening, being there. The content is the student, as well as the subjects I teach. Example. This year I am teaching art. I know that there are a number of students who are interested in graffiti art in my class. So I designed my first theme around that, Art in Public Spaces, allowing room for non-graffiti study for students who aren't interested in it. The students and their interests are my starting point content. I hook them through themselves and then expand.

    I teach somewhat apart from the rest of our school but our school is trying to establish connecting processes as well. They have created a 15 minute block during the day where small groups of students (I think around 15) are with a teacher in reading groups. This is to instill, if not a love at least time for, reading in our busy days. At the same time it allows students to connect with a teacher around something that is not grade based. It's a start.