Innovation, Learning

1000 Pinholes

Two weeks ago, I went to the opening of the Matisse Cut Outs Exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It is the largest collection of his paper cutouts ever assembled and included a couple of fascinating movies of the artist at work, culminating in his magnificent paper cut outs transformed into stained glass windows – breathtaking.

Henri Matisse is the embodiment of persistence.  After becoming ill and no longer able to paint and sculpt, Matisse turned to his scissors.  His work shows the transition from the fluidity of the brush to the more definitive slicing of paper.  Undeterred by the change in medium of expression, Matisse would simply cut and cut and cut, adding layers and shapes to his cut outs to achieve the desired look.  He would pin his work in place before gluing it down.  One of his pieces had more than 1000 pinholes in it as he continued to arrange and rearrange to get the desired outcome.

1000 pinholes.

Persistence.  It is something we talk about, encourage in our kids, hope to embody in our own lives.  Sticking with something until it’s done – whatever that looks like to you.  Matisse had persistence in spades.  He was often commissioned by philanthropists and art lovers to create bespoke work and during this process, would often have his designs and colors perpetually rejected.  He embraced this rejection.  Embraced it.  An elderly man, in failing health, and he chose to live his life having his work critiqued and rejected, offering him the opportunity to put together different colors, shapes, patterns – all with the goal of finding a palate and design that was perfect for his client. He was inherently persistent.

So how can we build this in our kids?

I think one of the things we need to be doing is continually pointing out the gains that are being made as learners – even when these ‘gains’ are not necessarily directly related to the acquisition of knowledge. What do I mean?  Say you had asked your kids to write a persuasive essay.  Your student works hard but ultimately their work is not meeting the agreed upon criteria.  If all of your focus goes on the product (the essay) the motivation to persist in the face of perceived “failure” may be quite low. If, however, you were to employ Guy Claxton’s Split Screen approach, you would still take time to evaluate and discuss the essay, but then you would ‘split’ your time by discussing the process. What tools would have helped more?  What questions could have been asked?  What was good about the way the work was initially organized?

Split Screen

By “splitting” between process and product, students can see that they ARE making progress and growth in their learning.  The skills you help them see that they have developed can be transferred to the next task.  They will be more likely to persist when they can see the possibility that exists within themselves.  As teachers, we have to help shine a light on that possibility.


*I have written previously about Process-vs-Product.  Check it out here.

21st Century, Creativity, Innovation, Inspiration

We Say It Is About The Process But Is It Really Still About the Product?

My teaching partner and I have recently (today) merged our two class blogs into one fifth grade blog.  We were finding that we are collaborating so much that separate blogs means duplication and sometimes information slipping through the cracks.  I was somewhat surprised that our request to do so was met favorably and made me think that perhaps it was starting to trickle down that the process is rising to the top of the totem pole of importance.  Do we each have one class blog?  No.  Will our parents and kids now be getting a more consistent message, communicated by both teachers and encompassing all learning?  Yes. Are we fulfilling our school-agreed obligation to communicate with our parents?  Yes – it just looks different to how other people do it.

Why then, do we still sometimes see teachers insisting on students sharing their understanding in the same format as everyone else?

A few weeks ago, I shared with my parents my thoughts on Process -vs- Product.  We had come to the end of a persuasive writing unit and so much had been learned by all the students in terms of who they were as a writer and what the writing process was all about.  Here is a little excerpt from that post:

I then asked the class to think about Persuasive Essay Writing as a pie and to divide up the pie between process and product.  I realized as we began to share our percentages that I had not been specific in terms of the criteria for dividing so we got a range of percentages ranging from 70/30 to 95/5.  I asked the two students who had volunteered these numbers to explain how they chose them:
“I chose 70/30 because we spent a lot of time working through the process in order to write the essays and because we were so thorough and did so much work, the final finished work should be considered fairly important and therefore get a big piece of the pie, just not as much as all the work we did to get there.”

“I chose 95/5 because I felt like all the work, all the writing and gathering information and editing and everything that went into making each part sound good, was the most important.  The part at the end where you make it look good and print it all together is just a small part of the whole point of the project.”

Interesting responses, right?  What was even more interesting was some of the responses I got back from my parents:
Parent A:  When it comes to my kid’s work, I love a well-crafted, polished finished product as much as anyone. However, what really matters to me is not the finished product, but the process of thinking by which V could arrive at that finished product. It’s on the ‘knowing how’ and the ‘knowing why’ of the process that that I put my emphasis. 95/5
Parent B: Having just finished the Steve Jobs book, I’m big on product, but as much as one tries a product is never perfect and they always must evolve with the times, so the process of striving for a perfect product is what’s exciting for me.
Parent C: I loved your email regarding “process versus product”! Thanks! I’ve been talking to L about this idea as it relates to her math.  I’ve tried to encourage her to use scratch paper every time she does Khan Academy and not to get too focused on just getting the answer. The important thing is to understand the process to get to the answer.  I’m sure you are emphasizing this too but I thought it might help her if you know we were talking about it at home too.
Was that what you would have expected?
What it did for me, was make me realize that our parents are in on this game too.  They are involved, invested and interested.  They are educated, well-read and curious.  Knowing that, we need to make sure we are not just cranking out “school” as it was ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Would you go to a doctor that used techniques from 1912 to cure your tonsillitis?   Don’t we expect professionals to be at the cutting edge of what is new in their field?  Why then, do we still see school projects that insist on one way of doing?   We might give a tiny bit of choice here and there but some will always decide what the product will be and then hold everyone to that standard.  As a kid, I loved being told to ‘make a poster’ – that was my nirvana.  If I was told ‘interpret through dance’ I would probably have suggested to my parents that I skip school that day.   I’m not saying that we don’t need to challenge children to step outside their comfort zones now and then, but can we do so without squeezing every ounce of interest in learning from them with our brochure/tri-fold board/poster requirement?
We are two weeks into our Exhibition unit.  Today we talked about Seth Godin’s book ‘Ship It’.  Our ‘it’ is the evening presentation.  Our shipping date is May 21st.  Already, some kids are trying to think of how they can make their ‘it’ by then.  Will it be a tri-fold, a 3D model, a …..?  As they discussed their ‘products’ lots of really innovative and interesting ideas and processes were being thrown out as they would essentially ‘get in the way’ of the paper mache model making.  Alarm bells!  A relaxed weekend later, the solution was clear: the “it”, the product, was their story.  We want them to share their journey over the eight weeks and if that thing that they might usually bring on ‘sharing day’ wasn’t ready or didn’t exist – great!  If they had a burned wing from what used to be a model plane – great!  If they had a Kitchen Aid, a running shoe and a pogo stick and told us their journey through that – great!   A collective sigh of relief seemed to reverberate around the room.  Suddenly the big ideas were back on the table.  The switch between ‘product’ (what can I make by then) to ‘process’ (what can I do by then) had flipped again – thankfully.
Here’s what I know to be true (thanks Oprah) about Products and Processes:
  • give your kids lots of tools to choose from to share their learning process – do you think if you gave a kid free reign in a candy store they would only eat from one jar? all the time?
  • if the process is what is important in a concept-driven curriculum, let the process be the most important thing put on display
  • if we keep having Open Houses at the end of a unit in which every child shows their tri-fold/shoebox/poster and parents take time off work to see said tri-fold/shoebox/poster (which, let’s face it, they probably made 90% of anyway) we are telling the parents and the kids that that was the most important thing from the unit – if we invite them in to see the debate, the organizing, the struggle, the tension, the discussion, the group work, we are showing them that these are valued over the tri-folds
  • making a beautiful product doesn’t mean you are the smartest person in the class.  It means you can make a beautiful product.
  • from some of the ‘worst’ projects or essays or posters have come some of the most profound learning experiences
  • putting your work on a tri-fold board can for some people be akin to poking yourself repeatedly in the eye.  Seriously.

Where do you you split your process/product pie?

For more on how we have asked our kids to share their story with us, read “It’s Story Time…”

Disclaimer: No tri-fold boards were harmed in the writing of this post.