In Learning, are Process and Product Indivisible?

Home/21C Skills, Innovation in Education/In Learning, are Process and Product Indivisible?

In Learning, are Process and Product Indivisible?

Last night on the always provocative Twitter #DTK12Chat, thought leader/teacher/design thinker Mary Cantwell asked “In design thinking, does either process or product trump the other?”. Most responses favored process; a few championed product, for without a product are we not just spinning our wheels? I offered two thoughts and have been stewing over them. “In design thinking, as in all learning, process IS the product.” And “process and product are two sides of the same coin.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 12.04.58 PMMary’s question did just what it was meant to do: provoke thinking.  I think that the question embeds a false assumption, as if we asked, “which is the more critical element in water, hydrogen or oxygen?”

As I have said before, I believe design thinking is a scaffold of “good thinking” or “creative problem solving”, and not a unique species.  I believe the Tao of learning is that by engaging the process we learn…which is the most important product. 

But is not a key strength of design thinking to prototype a result, and then tweak it, make it better, do it again, and learn from those incremental results?  Yes, but the question is, “what is a result, or product?”  Turned loose in a room full of stuff and tools and encouragement we make things. This is valuable, even fabulous work! And it is relatively easy for a good teacher to extrapolate from that physical design studio to, say, an English class where the students empathize with other writers, the world around them, and classmates, and iterate better and better poetry.

imgresBut consider this: we are at the base of a mountain searching for a path to the top.  We try this way and that and wind our way up the mountain, finding our way across swollen streams, up rocky cliffs, along narrow tracks, past the sleeping bear, and enjoy the view, or not.  We never make it to the top; maybe daylight runs out or we get too tired, or we just plain give up because we don’t have enough “grit”, or we decide to take a nap in the meadow instead, or we lack enough knowledge of the mountain, or a guide who can teach us what we need to know.

Some would argue that the “product” of this experience, or “process” would be an understanding of the lessons we learn from failing to get to the top, of successfully concluding the exercise.  I think the “product” is the cumulative experience of the time spent on the mountain, regardless of completion of the task. Any one of us, student or adult, who spent time on that mountain would have engaged a process replete with design thinking strategies, whether we could name them or not. To the outside observer it may appear difficult to identify the product, but it is there nonetheless.  I just don’t see how it can be otherwise. Surely that process resulted in really good, perhaps even unique or life-changing learning, even if the product might be in dispute or hard to define.  Maybe we just don’t try hard enough to understand highly intangible products, because in school we compel ourselves to measure the tangible.

I think this thought experiment proves my point that we can’t separate process from product in real learning, but any good experiment must stand up to challenge.  Hopefully you will!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
By | 2014-03-20T19:14:32+00:00 March 20th, 2014|21C Skills, Innovation in Education|3 Comments

About the Author:


  1. Angel Kytle March 20, 2014 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    I like your thinking here, and I agree. What I also pondered about was perhaps an “answer” or distinction can be made with what happens afterwards- namely, the transfer. The process learners undertake and experience is valuable in and of itself, and the cumulative effect (time on the mountain) can be seen as a product. But, couldn’t we also view a learner’s subsequent engagement or experience when he/she applies what was learned throughout previous processes as a product? I think this connects with Project Zero’s focus on understanding as being able to think or act flexibly about something. This future product elongates and extends the process of learning, while at the same time, “tangibly” affecting future learning. Just some more thoughts to ponder. I appreciate you and our colleagues at Mount Vernon and DTK12chat urging us to noodle further together!

  2. boadams1 March 25, 2014 at 8:02 am - Reply

    Grant, thanks for this reflection. I was not present for that #dtk12chat, and I really appreciate the window into the conversation that you provided here. I wish I had been there.

    I m frustrated, to a degree, with education’s “arguing” around process and product. I agree with you that they are intertwined and inseparable – I love the H20 analogy.

    I am eternally grateful for my time at Unboundary because I think it provided me many things. It certainly provided me a window into how strategic design firms use DT to make things – goods and services. An iterative product (tangible or intangible) that derives from deep process.

    But it resulted in a product. That someone could use. That someone wanted to use. If they didn’t want to do so, we re-iterated it based on the field work and insights.

    But it resulted in a value-adding product.

    I think much of this “debate” in education over process and product is a consequence of us having too low expectations for students — for underestimating their ability and desire to do real work that matters to real audiences beyond their teachers and grade books. I think this condition is understandable, though, because many/most educators have not spent much time in the working world beyond the school walls and school day.

    We put up far too many walls between “school” and “real life” and this debate is one of the resulting casualties, in my humble opinion. Students want to work on relevant, real-world applications. Maybe not all day, everyday. (Many adults don’t want to either!) But they want to engage with work that matters. Generally, “work that matters” integrates process and product. I’m not sure anywhere else but “school” makes such a false distinction anyway.

    • glichtman March 25, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      I love your ending comment “work that matters integrates process and product”; could not agree more. I feel that some folks who (thank goodness) focus on design thinking, PBL, and maker-spaces, to mention a few, take a narrow view of “product”, that it always has to be a “thing”. Perhaps it is my love of zen, but I don’t think “product” has to be tangible every time. Perhaps most times, but not always. If a student, or any of us, leave an activity with, for example, a heightened sense of empowerment, in my view that is a “product” that will carry over to a future effort that may result in something with a real-world application. To me, this is the indivisibility of the hydrogen and oxygen.

      Am probably splitting the argument too finely, but that is what I do!

Leave A Comment