Product or Process?

I’ve always found myself saying things like “it’s the journey that matters.” I’ve written blog posts about project-based learning and my fear of obsessing over the finished product rather than examining the learning that takes place. When students did “maker” projects last year, I reminded them that it was about the learning and not the finished product.

However, I’ve been rethinking that over the last few weeks. See, I love to write. I have a process down. I’m still into the journey. And yet, the product matters. As I work through the first draft of Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard, I’m not thinking about the journey. I’m not thinking about the mastery of skills. I’m thinking of the work and how to make it better.

The same is true of canvases I’ve painted and sketches I’ve drawn. I’ve never sat through the process thinking, “I hope I’m learning something right now.” Even as I improve, the goal doesn’t seem to be sketching to be a better artist or writing to be a better author. Instead, the learning seems to be a byproduct of the creative process. And the driving force of the creative process seems to be the product.

I’m not sure what this means in terms of the classroom setting. I realize that school is more about conceptual development and skill mastery than about product creation. However, when thinking about maker spaces or designer labs, I’m wondering if we’re accidentally making it artificial when we place the learning or the journey as the driving force.

What if the driving force is the product and the journey and learning are a part of the reflective process? If that’s true, what does that mean for the teacher? Are we the guides that lead the reflection? Or are we mentors who help provide feedback on the product? Or is it both?

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

9 responses

  1. I wanted to compile another poetry book a few months back becuase I had been writing a lot. Turns out most of what I wrote just sucked. While the process was fun and enjoyable, I am missing out on being able to share it with people because I don't have enough to publish. If I had focused on the product a little more, I'd have the satisfaction of both. There is the balance of enjoying what you do and also making sure you create things of quality, which come from not always enjoyable things like hard work and editing. Quality and fun don't always go hand in hand and finding that balance is important. But having something good in the end is hard to match.

    1. It seems that the balance is critical. I loved writing *A Wall for Zombies* but, well, it sucked. I haven't enjoyed every part of my latest work, but I think it will be better in the end.

  2. Kids have always wanted a reachable standard for product. Every teacher has had the experience of students madly improving media (and other) products at the last minute to reach a standard set by another student. This is a good thing. It is "real world" stuff. The trick, I think, is the "reachable" part. The teacher's product – the assignment with rubric and model – is hugely important. It has to be doable by all (which in my experience means scaling down), but it also has to open up doors for creativity and learning outside of the information box. Bad teacher product = poor student products. Students are sensitive judges of themselves and of others – this extends to schoolwork too, something some teachers forget. Of course product is important!

    1. I think the reachable part is tricky. As a teacher, I can be way too tempted to do the reaching for them.

  3. So you have me wondering do I say the "process is more important than the product" to cover the fact that students didn't really do good work on something? Am I hiding my personal disappointment or embarrassment of their products?

    Many times I have had high expectations of how a project will end and it doesn't either because of lack of a good audience, poor student work, or things just breaking down often from poor organization on my part.

    I think it is ok to say if it is true, but I need to make sure that I am not using it as an excuse.

    1. On some level, it probably is about the process. I guess that's true in the early stages of learning anything. We should expect a fair amount of failure. We should expect that things won't turn out looking the right way. To use my example of writing, I've been doing it since I was a kid. It was always about the product, but also the process. I loved the feeling of making something. And because I didn't expect perfection, I took risks and moved on.

  4. John, I often hear myself saying the same thing—it’s the journey that matters, not the end result. I say that to every one of my students at some point in the year, when they get a grade or evaluation that disappoints them. I tell them that more often failure is what helps us to learn from our mistakes. They respond exactly how I would respond if I was a high school student- mild indifference while focusing still on the grade. How can I blame them for this response? Assessments, grades, the end result is what helps them go off to college. For them, it does not matter what they learned completing a project, what matters is their transcript. This problem frustrates me most when I watch an English Learner in my classroom work so hard to tackle the language, the lesson being taught, and the assessment. At the same time, I have a student who doesn’t need to work as hard and yet they end up with an A because they are incredibly talented in English both the language and the class itself. However, the former student worked twice as hard and completed a project that was well-done, but not of the same caliber as the latter. So the EL gets the B, and the other student gets the A. The EL spent twice as much time as the other student. So, am I really rewarding the process, am I really practicing what I preach—that it is the journey and the learning, not the assessment?

  5. Hey John, have you read Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence? I've been working through it slowly and still have a ways to go, but I think you might want to read it when you get a chance.

  6. This was really interesting. I'm constantly telling parents "it's the process, not the product" (usually to keep them from doing their children's homework for them) but I can see where the product is actually the most important element. Yes, they are learning during the process but what's the point if there is never a product. I'm full of analogies tonight, this reminds me of the chicken-egg argument. Truthfully, in the "real world" (the work place) the important part is the product, and our new Common Core focus is college and career (emphasis) readiness. So it seems as though they are equally important. Perhaps I need to rethink what I'm sharing with parents.

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