Process or Content? Both

There has been a fairly recent upheaval in the worlds of psychology and philosophy. We used to think of reason as an act that was completely separate from emotion. Descartes famously established this view with his edict, “I think, therefore I am.” Our being as human was determined by our ability to think. And, because this was the essential ability above all else that made us human, the act of thinking, or reasoning, was privileged above all else.

Lost in this was the importance of emotions, and the fact that it is impossible to unbind our thinking from our emotions. George Lakoff points this out in his concept of embodied cognition. He argues that cognition, thinking, occurs only within the grounding of our bodies, and this bodily grounding necessarily includes our emotions. It is impossible to separate the two. We may speak about them separately, but this is simply an instance of the way language fragments reality. (See David Bohm’s, Wholeness and the Implicate Order for more on language and wholeness.) The consequences of this metaphorical fragmentation have been dire, with many arguing that it is at the root of much of our modern day anxiety, and even the root cause of our ecological troubles. (For more, see cultural critic Morris Berman’s “The Reenchantment of the World”.)

I don’t want to make too much of this, other than as a means of illustration for a similar mistake we make in schools when we separate content from process in our imagining of learning.

Our modern day minds have privileged content over process in the same way we have privileged reasoning over emotions (and there are probably connections to Descartes in this privileging of content). Content is that which can be can be quantified and measured. This, from a scientific stand point of view, is what we can objectively verify. And, the logic goes, because it can be objectively verified it must therefore be more valuable.

At the other end of this false spectrum lies the process of learning. Process says that the important thing in learning is the cognitive processes that involve thinking. These are the “21st Century Skills” that are all the rave right now. (See Will Richardson’s article explicating some of this.)

(As a side note, in my view the phrase “21st Century Skills” tends to raise connotations of feeding children to an economic engine, so I prefer Ron Ritchart’s ‘dispositions’ as language that is more fitting to the process view of thinking I am getting at.)

The false dichotomy is that of either a “content focus” or a “process focus” approach to learning, and this false dichotomy privileges content over process, as the dichotomy of philosophy privileged reason over emotion. And it also does so with dire consequences.

The effect has led to focusing on content to the exclusion of process simply because content is easy to measure. Our current emphasis on testing can be directly attributed to this focus, as in what Paulo Friere has labelled the banking concept of education , which assumes that we are simply vessels to be filled with knowledge, and our retention of that knowledge can measured. In opposition to this, the process theory of learning assumes that the cognitive processes of learning content are crucial, and our ability to develop them is the purpose of schools.

My point here is that we harm students by making this an “either/or” gambit. They are both necessary. However, when the approach is knowledge based, or content focused, we lose out on our ability to develop the necessary dispositions for future authentic learning of content. On the other hand, you can not have a process approach to learning unless the process occurs via some form of content. In the process approach, you get the best of both worlds because process can occur only within the context of content. As a simple illustrative example, you can not focus on the skills of dialogue (process) without a topic (content) of discussion. Both are important. However, the topic could potentially be learned without dialogue through direct instruction, in which case all of the potential for developing the skills of dialogue would be lost.

At the same time, we must recognize that these processes we value so much are really hard to measure. And when we attempt to measure them, especially as the outcome of content knowledge in mind via standardized testing, we alter the process of learning because, once again, we are prioritizing content over process. When we test, we alter what it is that is emphasized, and this is done at the expense of the dispositions gained through a process approach. (For more evidence, see the foremost expert on this, Yong Zhao.) By measuring one-dimensionally via testing we pervert the process of learning.

So, process or content? Both.

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