Process versus product in pre-school education

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Usha Raj Narayan

What is the educator’s objective in working with young children? To me it is to make sure that each child becomes not only an autonomous learner, but a lifelong one. An autonomous learner acquires knowledge through personal participation in an activity. Children learn new concepts and skills through the “process” of practicing and perfecting, at will, either consciously or unconsciously, depending on the child’s age. For example, the preschooler learns the concept of size by manipulating and comparing, say, cubes of different sizes. The infant learns language by observing and mimicking older members of the family.

In the formal pre-school setting, how does one then go about achieving this goal of teaching children concepts? Teachers and parents alike can facilitate their learning by presenting concepts in a way that arouses and holds the child’s interest. This can be done in everyday life, in the most simple and natural of family and other situations. For example, to introduce math concepts you can say, “It is snack time. Can you help me? Thank you. Let’s see, there are five of us and we will each have two biscuits. Look, we needed 10 biscuits.”

The terms “process” and “product” have no meaning for the child, but are important notions for parents and educators. Process is the way the child learns any new skill, be it language, motor, or social. The new skill is the (end-) product. The product cannot be achieved without due process. E. M. Standing, a well-known advocate of Montessori education, aptly says it takes twenty two years to make a man of two and twenty!

In helping the child focus on “process”, the educator faces many challenges, not the least of them being one’s own self. In spite of having had training in early childhood education, one’s own upbringing and cultural biases get in the way. The behavior of adults in some cultures towards young children is close to pampering or indulgence and this flows into the teaching situation, resulting in the young child being treated not as an individual but as a helpless being to be coddled. Such an attitude can interfere with the “process”.

Parents too have high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of their child. They might compare the child’s abilities with those of siblings or peers. They may demand tangible proof of the child’s progress, such as completed samples of a paper link chain or a kite, for example. Occasionally, the gap between the care giving style of the parents and teachers is so wide that it is almost impossible to bridge.

Sometimes, one or more members of the teaching team might become a challenge, too. When a child is being encouraged to become an autonomous learner, independence is of the essence. For example, a three- year old is being toilet trained. This means that not only is the child expected to use the toilet independently, but also undress and dress her or himself. This task will take a fair amount of patience and firmness on the part of the caregiver. It is actually much easier to assist the child than patiently wait for the child to manage the process. But the goal here is to make the child gain mastery of an important social skill. It is imperative that the teacher in charge is not undermined by unnecessary ‘help’ from her anxious team-mates.

The head of the educational institution can cause conflict between the teaching theory and the school’s need to record achievement by insisting on strict adherence to curricula. Each child in the room has her/his own style and pace of learning. Uniform progress cannot take place when process is the focus. This is a particularly difficult challenge for a teacher, because without complete support from the administration, teachers cannot function effectively.

What exactly does process consist of and why is this essential in early childhood education? Process is how the child grows up into a unique individual. But the child is also to become a functioning member of her/his social group. To the keen observer, it is evident that children love to emulate the adults in their lives, thereby learning essential new skills. They need to repeat an activity until they have mastered the skill. Apart from getting the child’s environment ready, there is little more that the early childhood educator can do to foster the learning process. Part of the environment is the psychological environment. At the risk of repetition, it needs to be emphasized that every child develops at his or her own pace. So, it is unrealistic to have undifferentiated goals for a group of young children.

It is important to remember that the teachers and parents are a team, in the quest to make the child an autonomous learner. The parents are the child’s first teachers and early childhood educators can only continue the process. Hence it is an excellent idea to involve parents in the running of the classroom. While some parents are a challenge to deal with, there are others who understand the need for process and bring their children to pre-school with the express goal of teaching them social skills, be it sharing, empathy, or participation in group tasks.

The child’s activity is not goal oriented, very different from that of the adult. It is actually the opposite, since the child is not hurrying along to achieve the (end-) product. For the child, work is play and play is work. Great philosophers suggest that this is how we should all live our lives. The end will result regardless and in spite of our quest for it. We are only required to pay careful attention to the process.

Earlier we mentioned children emulating adults performing everyday tasks. Maria Montessori’s ‘Casa dei Bambini ’(children’s house) consisted of a ‘Practical Life” activities area, where entire shelves were devoted to activities such as pouring (from one jug to another), spooning, ladling, polishing, sweeping, etc., where young children could practice every skill to their heart’s content. This area also included activities that helped the child practice care of self, such as feeding, getting dressed, washing up and grooming. Montessori was fostering “process”. In addition to making the children’s environment conducive to learning, the adult can provide support that Jerome Bruner, the child development expert, terms “scaffolding”. The adult is the role model, demonstrating the process.

How many times have we encountered adults who lack basic skills? One watches helplessly as an adult drags a hapless child across a busy intersection completely oblivious to the teaching opportunity. During social interaction, far too often, grown ups sadly exhibit a lack of common courtesy. We only have to look at the litter on the streets to gauge the collective apathy of a community. Possibly, these situations could be avoided if children are allowed ample time for the process of developing into well-rounded individuals.

Play is work and child’s play!
Whether you are a parent or an educator, ask yourself “do I promote the process or the product”? Then again, whose criteria is the product being measured against? For example, the child is busily creating something according to her/his own agenda. It might not make any sense to the adult. But, does it need to make sense to the parent/teacher at first glance? Observe the child during the process. Discuss the work with the child. If you ask with genuine interest, the child might reward you with an explanation of what has been created. Chances are you will be bowled over with what the end product actually represents. Janet Moyles, in ‘Just Playing’ describes the process of a particular child’s activity. The child painted an outdoor scenery, complete with sun, clouds, flowers, etc., in bright colors, and then proceeded to paint over the entire picture with bold strokes of brown paint, saying “ now it is raining” to the by then mortified educator.

We have so far focused on process. Is not product important? Yes, surely it is. By focusing on the process, one can ensure that the outcome or product is not compromised. Focusing on product prematurely will stunt autonomy, the ability to be an individual. Process prepares the individual to act appropriately now, in the present situation, be centered. We can then dare to dream of a society where all individuals are content and secure with the knowledge of who they are if only we are willing to allow children the freedom of process.

The author is a pre-school teacher at Montessori Children’s House, West Des Moines, Iowa, USA. She can be reached at pummir@aol.com.