Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Product and Process and Ferris' Wheel

Source: LoboStudioHamburg, Pixabay
This morning I read a post from John Spencer's Education Rethink, Process or Product?  Reflecting on the sometimes poor quality of his classroom projects, and the contradition inherent in valuing Product in an environment that stresses the learning value of Process, John muses, "What if the driving force is the product and the journey and learning are a part of the reflective process?" and " I realize that school is more about conceptual development and skill mastery than about product creation...I'm wondering if we're accidentally making it artificial when we place the learning on the journey as the driving force."

What John means, of course, is hypocritical. There is nothing accidental or artificial about the decision to place learning importance on "the journey." It is, in my opinion, key to the educational philosophy that has been driving reform and change for quite a while. I share John's unease with this paradigm; I left the following comment on his post: 
"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!"

But I realize that this is just one way of thinking about the relative values of Process and Product.

I am thinking now about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as recounted in Larson's fabulous book The Devil in the White City.  This is a book about the driving force of Product: the Fair was a point of national, personal, and local pride - shoddy work, failure to meet the highest standard, were not a choice in the eyes of the architects, the workers, the designers, the engineers, the politicians, the businessmen, and the society figures involved.  This is true also of the parallel story, where the Product was the flawless manipulation of innocents with the end result of undetected murders.  With a Product in mind, all of the players in the book engage in learning activities, whether it be collaborative or competitive, deep research or spontaneous response. With few exceptions, the learning driven by Product is not an end in itself; it is a necessary cog in the wheel driving toward Product. There is little sense of learning as a cultural, social or personal change-maker. Learning in any of its format - new knowledge, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative expression, understanding - is necessary to achieve a goal or overcome a challenge. This is real world stuff.

On the other hand, The Devil in the White City is a book about the driving force of Process: the pride of its architects, workers, designers, engineers, politicians, businessmen, and society figures leads them to create new technologies and methodologies, to think critically for the first time about old problems, to invent, to adapt, to compromise, to broaden their thinking. In the background, national and global Depression propels the Processes of individual and national decision-making and of cultural change (labor unionism).  This is also true of the parallel story, where the Process of designing and constructing a "murder hotel," and then of manipulating victims, drives H.H. Holmes.  The Process of plodding, relentless detection drives the investigator who eventually finds the evidence. It is only because his Process is a little bit shoddy that Holmes is eventually caught. With few exceptions, the learning driven by Process does not happen in a vacuum; it is a technological change-maker with wide ramifications. With the possible exception of Holmes, the players are deeply aware of this. This is real world stuff.

It is the story of Ferris's giant Wheel that provides the best analogy for the classroom. Here are the key comparisons:

As you can see, there are many Challenges/Limitations and many (maybe) Advantages on the student side.  I think that these are exactly the factors that forestall or impede Process and, as a result, negatively impact Product.  

With the exception of Time (and even that can generally be compromised in the classroom, although rarely in Real Life), each of these factors can be manipulated by the teacher to improve both the Process and the Product.  In some cases, this means specificity in the Challenge (assignment).  In the case of support from the teacher and communication with knowledgeable peers, time and opportunity for both need to be built into the Process (this may mean use of social networks, etc.).  

The factors involving access and availability will vary with school and student populations.  In my experience, equalizing and maximizing these leads to the most successful Process time. If necessary, the Challenge needs to be adapted to ameliorate gross differences in access and availability.  It is the teacher's job to make this determination, just as it was Burnham's job to understand that most bids for the Fair engineering challenge were not doable, whereas Ferris had the access and experience necessary to make his Wheel a reality.  

The remaining factors, the four *'d (maybe's), are the most critical.  They are certainly the factors that John Spencer finds most worrisome. Dissonance arises from the fact that Process as driving force is aimed at developing these factors, while at the same time Process and any learning from it are only as successful as a student's ability to demonstrate each factor.  

For most students, the expectation that they direct their own learning Process results in confusion and mediocrity. A Process is either wildly creative and original but without a disciplined structure of thought ("all over the place"), or it follows a model so strictly that there is little creativity or originality in the final product.  In either case, a teacher is hard put to identify "learning" in the Product, despite the amount of information it contains.

There are five suggestions that I can offer:
  1. Rethink the concept of "what is learned" to separate information from skills from "learning traits" of the student.  Design challenges that focus on success factors separately, scaffolding students up to a challenge that integrates all three.  It is helpful if a grade level team is able to do this concurrently.  In every case, score student performance on the learning factor that is being developed.  If it is "communicates effectively with teacher/peers for support and guidance," score that (0-3 is generally effective).  If the factor is "demonstrates ability to create a slide show in a tool of his choice," score that.  If the factor is "demonstrates intellectual curiosity about subject," score that.  Once the language for assessment is developed, it should be used and reused throughout the year (or better yet, the student's school career).
  2. Ditch lock-step or 1-tool projects and focus upon open-ended challenges that truly require students to demonstrate an integration of success factors.  Save the word Project for these challenges and develop small, discrete challenges for each factor.  Students who have demonstrated facility with the factors necessary for success should not be asked to complete the same level of project.  Some educators design A-level, B-level, etc. challenges to deal with this reality. Others use conferencing.  It is tricky when assessment time comes, so...
  3. Consider grading Process but not overall Product.  By nature, Murder Hotels aside, Products are conspicuous in their mediocrity, success, or failure.  If they are displayed to a wide, authentic audience, no culminating "grade" should be necessary.  Instead, assess the individual steps and learning factors - everything needs to be submitted (notes, outlines, drafts...).
  4. The traditional Science Fair contains an interview element that serves to measure learning, often beyond what the physical product demonstrates.  Embed this in all Projects.  I always included a peer interview phase, averaged peer assessments with my own, and handed out peer response sheets along with assessment results.
  5. Make time a factor in Product focused projects.  This is tough, but absolute deadlines are not only real life stuff, they serve to force the student to refine Process, greatly improving learning.  "Chunking" with deadlines is often necessary.  Consider what I call the "Favreau requirement": Students who do not meet a deadline stay in school until the task is completed.
It is a lesson of The Devil in the White City that Product is ephemeral. Nothing remained of Ferris' grand wheel two years after the Fair. Process, on the other hand, is a stepping stone. The technological inventions and adaptations that made the wheel possible were lessons well learned; many are still being built upon.  

In fact, most students will, when surveyed, remember with pride and pleasure the smaller learning challenges at which they succeeded, but not mention big Projects.  Does this mean we should eliminate Product focused projects?  No, I don't think so, much as I dislike them generally. Without an occasional Ferris Wheel (or Google or Facebook or iPod or To Kill a Mockingbird...) there is little to inspire the student to continue learning and trying.  That deepest and most intrinsic of motivations comes with time.

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