Why Process Over Product? {Part One}

Part One: Discovery vs Following Directions

Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, has a terrific forum area of her website, and currently it contains an active thread on process vs product art for children. If you’ve dug around on this blog of mine at all, you know I’m passionate about allowing children the opportunity to explore process-oriented, open-ended art. This series of posts grew out of the thoughts I shared in that thread; I encourage you to join Lori’s forums, if you haven’t already.

Playing with monotypes

Playing with monotypes

In process-oriented art, the DOING is what is important: the PROCESS of making, exploring, and discovering. Product-based art is focused on the end result. In an open-ended activity, we don’t know where we’re going to end up, while in a closed activity, the end result has been predetermined by someone else. My elementary school “art” classes were exercises in following directions, with the (teacher’s) stated goal being 30 projects that looked just like hers. Sadly, this is still true in many schools. There is no room for creativity there, for amazing discoveries and delights.

One example given in the forum thread as a possible support for product-based “art” experiences for children is that of a new knitter following patterns until she knows enough to design her own, the connection being that children learn skills by following directions rather than by process-based exploration. I taught myself to knit because I wanted to make something specific, a Christmas stocking for my first baby. I decided upon a specific skill, knitting, which I needed to learn, so I did. And yes, I followed the pattern for the stocking. Taking a class wasn’t a possibility, so I didn’t “learn” that a new knitter’s first project should be a scarf. There was nobody to tell me, “Oh no, you can’t start right off knitting a tube with four needles. New knitters don’t do that. You have to progress through this predetermined sequence of easy projects before you can attempt anything like that.”

I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I figured I could do anything. That is the confidence I want for my children. I taught myself to knit in October and had a hand-knit Christmas stocking ready in time. Sure, I struggled, and the argument can be made that I persevered because I had a specific end product in mind. But—and this loops back into the goals of authentic project-based learning—I was committed to learning a new skill in order to realize my own vision and goal (and even with that first pattern, I changed it to suit me). The next item I knit was the sweater sampler from Jacqueline Fee’s Sweater Workshop. This project didn’t result in anything recognizable or a useful “thing,” but the process taught me a variety of skills. Then I either followed patterns, or not. Or I began with a pattern, but modified it to suit me, because I understood what I was doing.

I can tell you with much assurance that only following patterns doesn’t teach a knitter much except how to follow patterns. It is the same with any other skill. Only following somebody else’s directions only teaches you how to follow somebody else’s directions. If you don’t truly understand your materials and how they behave, you won’t recognize when the directions are wrong. Or if you do, you won’t be sure how to fix it. Learning how to design knitted items doesn’t come from knitting a whole lot of them, following directions slavishly. It comes from experimenting with different stitches and techniques, different weights and needles, and comparing the resulting fabrics. It comes from playing with the materials.

And that will be Part Two: Knowing the Materials.
Part Three: Realizing a Vision

{I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how important a mentor is, even for adult self-taught learners. My sister, an accomplished knitter, loaned me several of her books, including The Sweater Workshop and Knitting in Plain English. These are not pattern books. They are think-for-yourself knitting books, and I’m sure being exposed to that sort of philosophy right from the start helped shaped my attitude towards knitting and every handwork skill I added thereafter.}

13 thoughts on “Why Process Over Product? {Part One}

  1. Lori

    “I was committed to learning a new skill in order to realize my own vision and goal” — this hits on something key: children’s desire to accomplish something meaningful makes skill acquisition make *sense*. not only the skills they need immediately, but skills in *general*. they begin to see that skills are useful for doing real work that has meaning and purpose.

    but skill acquisition needs to occur in the *context* of doing that work — most children are told to practice and learn to acquire skills but it’s never placed in that larger context.

    when it comes to process- vs. product-oriented art, with a sample product, the larger context of meaning and purpose is nonexistent. children don’t contribute anything — no ideas, no vision, no interests, no goals. process-oriented art asks the child to bring something to the table. they combine the skills, tools, and ideas with their own thoughts, questions, interests, and ideas.

    1. amy

      “their own thoughts, questions, interests, and ideas.”
      Yes, this seems to be missing in so much. I get into that later (part 3 maybe?). It’s MUCH harder for the adult-in-charge to make space for numerous and unique thoughts, questions, interests, and ideas, isn’t it? So much easier when everyone just does the same thing at the same time.

      1. Lori

        which is SO CONFUSING to me because i would much prefer an open studio with children working on something they’re really engaged in rather than trying to herd everyone through steps 1–X of how to do something i’ve specified.

        adults everywhere need to figure out that when children are truly interested and busy doing their *own* work, the adult’s job is much, much easier.

  2. Michelle

    We didn’t even have art in el school. But in the gifted classes we had an hour aweek, and even there we were expected to do follow the leader activities even when presented with a new medium. So frustrating.

    It was like that for me with sewing. I learned by experimenting. You learn so much more that way, because you inevitably run into a new problem that you need to solve. The process becomes empowering. I don’t want my kids to be afraid to try something new.

    1. amy

      The problem-solving is what keeps me interested, frankly. Makes sense it might be what keeps my kids interested too. 😉

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