Should process trump content?

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.

The winding down of summer vacation

This time of year always seems rather unreal. Logically I know that my vacation is waning – the stark reality is that I head back to work next Wednesday but until I walk into the school, it doesn’t seem real.

Even though I have definitely been thinking about the school year to come. I started two new blogs this week (I’m a little blog crazy, but I like them) – both to do with art and inspired by the winding down of summer vacation.

Paint for 30



One morning I woke up and realized that I had not painted a single thing since moving here. One week of holiday left and not a paint drop to be seen, even with a whole room to dedicate to my studio! So I decided to do something about it. Paint for 30 is a way to remind me to paint for at least 30 minutes each day. Right now I know of one person who has it in her feedreader (my sister, who blogs/podcasts at Within a Quarter Inch. It’s freestyle podcasting on her latest quilty (and sometimes guilty) endeavors as well as commentary on other crafty blogs and living with 2 1/2 yr old twins and her husband in Athens, Ohio.) so just that helps me to paint each day. I’m finding the process helpful so far – both in the ‘just do it already’ area as well as the creative process.

Tracy’s Art Class: doing. art



I’m going to be teaching 3 sections of art this year. If I am not mistaken that might make up a heck of a lot of my teaching time and so I decided to start reaching out to the kids even before school started. A lot of my students are connected to me on facebook so after I made the blog I asked them to read it and start commenting. So far I’ve received a couple of comments and 2 images to add to the page. One of which may even need to become the class logo (yay to Evan for getting excited about art class)

I’ll need to create spaces for the other 3 courses I’ll be teaching (holy crap. 4 courses, I was down to 3 but now I am back up to 4). Having sites for my courses helps me to keep them organized and alive in my head. Knowing that my students and I can always check in on them is reassuring.

But for today I plan to set up my easel (I just splurged on an easel, probably paid way too much for it but I was too impatient to wait until I got to Montreal or Ottawa so bought it at the little stationery store in Alexandria), paint for 30 minutes, and then maybe do some gardening, tidy up this here house, putter putter.

What I mean by teachers being the only real agents of school reform

This post is actually a comment in the conversation around school change over at Public School Insights – Casting Call for Teachers. It’s pretty much in the same state, maybe an extra sentence or two. I think it helps to clarify what I mean when I say “Teachers are the only real agents of school reform.” It’s a stark statement but holds truth.


I think there is a confusion with what I term as passion in teaching and teacher-hero. I absolutely do not believe in the teacher hero, unless it is as a community hero who just does the right thing (there are different understandings of hero – some have capes, like the movie star heroes, but most heroes are privately so and don’t even realize they are.)

I disagree that retaining a model of passionate teaching will result in failed culture change. Retaining that model as hope for the future can only succeed in creating more instances of it – we see what we ask questions about.

If it was understood that I thought teachers could/should act completely independently of anyone else I did not explain myself very well and for that I apologize.

I am a big believer in whole system change initiatives. In particular through theoretical and methodological lenses like appreciative inquiry, open systems theory, and participatory action research. These theories state that all parts of any system have an effect on each other part, even when we don’t realize it. Each part is important, there is a symbiotic relationship through the parts of any system. Therefore all (or as many as we can get in the room) parts of a system need to be involved in any kind of change process for it to become transformational, as Sheryl so wonderfully put it.

We do, however, have to recognize that the parts play different roles. In the educational system all of the roles are important and depend on each other – admin, teacher, support, children, families, boards (governing and school or district), government, health, social services… the list can go on. Even if all of the parts seem to be running in fabulous order – policy is good, the school is clean, parents are supportive, etc – if the teacher does not translate that policy into practice in her/his classroom, it doesn’t happen for the children.

That is why I say that teachers are the only REAL agents of school reform – agent as acting agent. We are not the only participants in reform, we are not the only ones who can trigger reform, but we put policy into practice on the front lines. We act on it. In good situations that passion breathes life into the lessons we work on with our students, and the school-based policy we help to create with our colleagues and administration. In difficult situations we need passion to be able to spin bad policy into good practice. That’s a given. Otherwise, the practice will merely reflect the policy upon which it was based.

We see what we ask questions about. If we continue to ask questions about how to fix a broken system we will see broken systems all around us. If we ask questions about how to generate balanced, participatory learning cultures, we will start to see places where they exist. And where they work.

doing the right things or doing things right

Came across this quote on my iGoogle page today:

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
– Peter Drucker

I’m reading this in terms of classroom leadership. And in light of the recent conversations about teaching and teachers that have been erupting across the blogosphere. (Read my last few posts to get links if you’re at all interested)

I like the distinction Peter makes. It’s a good one.

I like this picture of him (Peter Drucker) because it reminds me of my grandfather. The image is from, in Managing Ignorance: The Passing of Peter Drucker, from 2005.

Peter Drucker

The quality of teaching is not strained

The more I think about recent conversations around teaching – about why some people leave, and others don’t, about why some choose it over more lucrative or socially respected professions (in some circles) – the more this phrase spins in my head:

The quality of teaching is not strained

Of course, that was stolen from Portia’s famous lines to Shylock in a Merchant of Venice in her speech on mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Act IV, Scene I

In this case strained means something that can not be forced. Mercy’s greatest quality is that it is voluntary. It must be naturally so or else it is no longer true mercy.

I think about this in relation to teaching. We can train teachers in pedagogy, even show them what it means to be compassionate, to love children. But that compassion, that love of children, that recognition that true learning depends on relationship and sharing your story. That part, that can not be strained. That part, that’s the passion that calls many of us to our profession. And it is what keeps the majority of us who stay.

Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.
~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Why do anything unless it is going to be great?
~Peter Block