George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As I explored the correlation between great coaching and great teaching while interviewing highly successful sports coaches for a book about what teachers can learn from them, a common theme surfaced repeatedly. Several coaches stressed the importance of emphasizing the process rather than the results.

This approach may seem counterintuitive, especially given the unprecedented emphasis on testing and performance in education today. However, the process-oriented approach to teaching and learning falls in line nicely with classroom instructional goals such as growth mindset and mastery. Because teachers are generally compliant, they will work diligently to produce the scores and performance that states, districts, and school leadership demand. Perhaps, though, teachers need more leaders who can help emphasize the process in teaching and learning while de-emphasizing the performance.

The Problem

Athletes at all levels face greater pressure today than ever before to be competitive, to score, to rack up statistics, and to produce wins. With such rising pressure, organizations, teams, coaches, and even parents often value quantified results, numbers, and stats as much as, if not more than, player growth and development. In fact, most of the adults placing this pressure on young athletes assume that stats, scores and wins provide evidence of growth and development, while lesser stats and losses provide evidence of failure.

Unfortunately, this misguided thinking in the sports world seems to be mirrored in the world of education. Quite often, parents, students, and some educators mistakenly assume that test scores and even grades are also indicators of growth, development, and mastery. With so much emphasis on high-stakes testing and quantified data, is it any wonder that adults and students get hung up on performance, or outcomes and results, at the expense of mastery and an intentional focus on the process?

A Potential Solution

One might expect coaches competing for Olympic medals and NCAA national championships to focus on big-picture goals, wins, and titles. While truly great coaches such Marv Dunphy, Terry Schroeder, Brad Frost, and Brandon Slay do have NCAA titles, Olympic medals, or both, what I learned from them runs counter to what might be expected. Many of these coaches maintain that focus on the process has been a key ingredient for their success. They define "the process" as the emphasis on player growth and team development, mastery of skills, and mastery of elements of their respective games. Each insists on staying centered daily on the process, rather than talking daily about how to win games and championships.

Consider, for example, the words of the Tampa Bay Rays' manager Joe Maddon: "You're not trying to beat the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Blue Jays, you're trying to beat the game of baseball through execution." What makes this philosophy perhaps both counterintuitive and ironic is this: athletes and teams perform best when their coaches focus on the process and train to mastery, not when their coaches train them to perform. This approach holds huge potential for transforming classrooms.

Benefits of Emphasizing the Process

In the classroom, focus on the process can yield several benefits for students, including fostering a growth mindset, creating a student-centered environment, and reducing stress for students. For our purposes right now, however, let's examine how focus on the process can help students move away from chasing grades and scores, and move toward full engagement in learning and growing.

Sports fans, parents, and young athletes often value high scores, great stats, and wins, and spend their energy chasing those things. Great coaches know these shiny objects often hold little value. A win against a poor opponent or a win marked by little effort, bad habits, or poor execution may be a hollow victory. Conversely, while our same fans, parents, and athletes generally loathe losses, great coaches know that athletes and teams can play exceptionally well and show tremendous growth and improvement, yet walk away from a contest with a loss. In both instances, great coaches must direct athletes away from the results (stats and wins) and refocus them on the process (player growth and mastery). Athletes and teams that chase stats and wins will lose sight of the process. An athlete focused on his own growth and mastery of the game will see improved performance. For example, when a pitcher in baseball focuses on mastering the curve ball rather than striking out batters, the results will follow.

These same principles hold true in education. Test scores and grades may not accurately reflect a learner's success or failure, though parents and students spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money chasing grades and scores because they believe these things are true indicators of learning. Hence, great teachers encouraged by great educational leaders must keep learners focused on the process, not the results. Students chasing scores and grades will lose sight of the learning process and their own growth and development. Like their athlete counterparts, they must focus instead on personal growth within the learning process if they desire better performance. When a language student, for example, focuses on mastering the language rather than making an A, the results will follow.

The subtle shift away from results-oriented thinking to focus on the process may seem too simple to be true. Great leaders who see the value in process-focused teaching and learning, though, can help teachers improve what happens in their classrooms. Focus on the process will lead to mastery, growth, and ultimately, better performance. If you don't believe me, ask Coaches Dunphy, Schroeder, Frost, and Slay -- to name just a few.

Do you believe that your school puts a greater emphasis on process or results?

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rundle's picture

There's little doubt that my school in Maryland is concerned about the results. After all, most public schools that worry about the funding chase the results. Tests are easier to analyze when compared to a progress diagnostic. Little effort has been placed on (using) effective portfolios, which have been progress indicators for many a student. I greatly appreciate your view on the matter and concur; however, I'm not clear on how districts will implement assessments in light of the matter.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I don't think my local schools do this, but I'm also very aware that the schools in New Hampshire are an exception in many cases. At Antioch, we've always been very clear that good pedagogy focuses on process and content in equal measure and the results we've seen mirror what you describe- greater understanding, better metacognition, and stronger social/ emotional skills.

murraye02's picture

It is true that public education is results-oriented. Administrators, policy makers, parents and taxpayers want to know the numbers; are we winning? I agree that focus for teaching and learning should be process-oriented and that when this happens the results will be exactly what all stakeholders want. The sad reality of the current state of public education is that inevitably, the test scores are what attention is given to. It is how schools and teachers are rated, and in many states (not my own) it determines if teachers receive incentive pay for good performance. As much as I support the process-oriented approach and know that it does indeed lead to growth in skill and knowledge, it is difficult to convince teachers that the process should be the goal when they are constantly pressured to produce those "winning numbers."

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

If you center your attention and effort less on the results you're hoping for and more on the processes and techniques you use, you will learn faster, become more successful, and be happier with the outcome. In the long run things rarely turn out the way we expect them to. If your happiness is predicated on your success, and if your success is predicated on a specific outcome, you are setting yourself up for a high likelihood of frustration and dissatisfaction. If you instead let go of the need for any particular outcome, you increase your chances for success and contentment.

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