Process, not Content

Teachers sometimes might feel apathetic about their jobs. It’s hard to be motivated and care when one feels that their efforts are not making a difference. That’s the trouble with focusing on teaching content. Students hold content in short-term memory until their next test. After that is done, the content is forgotten, unless it is used regularly in their area of interest. Students interested in robotics, for example, might remember and use all the Physics and Math they learned. The rest of the students forget it all pretty quickly.

Most of us have forgotten most of the content we learned in school. I don’t remember calculus, the order of the halogens, and the breakdown of kingdom, phylum, family or whatever the taxonomical divisions of biology are. I don’t use them on an everyday basis, after all. I also don’t remember the names of the characters in all the novels I have read. What I do remember, though, are the analyses and syntheses we had to do about the themes in the books.
I also recall learning about the different psychological theories of Piaget, Maslow and others. While I don’t remember many of the details, I do remember how I applied them in my work with students.

Content vanishes. When teachers spend the bulk of school time on teaching an unvalued asset, it can start to feel like the work doesn’t matter. I feel the same way about housework. I wash breakfast dishes, soon I have to wash lunch dishes. Then dinner dishes. I start all over again the next day. The sink is never clean, and I feel like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill every single day. I never seem to make progress. And so it is with teaching content knowledge.

What we should be focusing on instead is process. Process is a transferable skill, and it sticks. Students actually make progress and progress to the next level. Then further, and more complex skills can be taught. It is the substance of education, and very satisfying.

Content is cheap. It is ubiquitous and easily available. Books, libraries, the internet- sources of content knowledge are everywhere. What is not so easily available, and hence is so valuable, is process knowledge. How do I use what I know? What do I do with all the data I possess? How do I use my content knowledge to my advantage? How do I convey the information I own to my clients? Out of all this information, what is important and relevant to me? What new information do I need to further my strength in an area? Which source of information will suit my needs best?

The big over-arching question that process encompasses is- What do I do with all the content knowledge I learned in school? How do I use it? How is it relevant to me?

Teachers can identify with this conundrum. The teaching methodology course teaches all the details about Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s multiple intelligences, etc. Yet, how many teachers can remember the skill levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy? How many can remember the various intelligences listed by Gardner? Yet every teacher knows what to do when he or she enters the classroom. All that foundational content knowledge serves to help the process of teaching.

Teachers will feel a greater sense of purpose in their jobs when they focus on process, rather than purely on content. Focusing on content alone feels like running on a treadmill, and both teacher and student quickly lose interest. Focusing on process will actually give teachers the traction needed to move learning forward. What teachers need to be teaching is higher order abstract meta-cognitive skills.