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I was reading an article about the state of special education in American schools. There was a statement in the article that essentially said that schools “value the process over the outcome.” I began to wonder what that means. The article was referring to schools that focus on compli...

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In Math (and In Life), Which is More Important—the Process or the Outcome?

Posted by: Livia McCoy on Jul 10, 2012 in Special Education, Math, Livia McCoy, Homework, Division


Livia McCoy
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I was reading an article about the state of special education in American schools. There was a statement in the article that essentially said that schools “value the process over the outcome.” I began to wonder what that means.

The article was referring to schools that focus on compliance with state and federal laws rather than focusing on the child and what needs to happen for her. But, there are other places where we also value the process over the outcome.

For example, in math classes students are taught a specific method for arriving at an answer. I have seen teachers write the steps on the board for how to solve a long division problem (or any other kind). They then monitor their students to make sure they are following the process correctly. In truth, there are other ways to arrive at the same outcome (correct answer)!

You can arrive at the correct answer in long division using the traditional method almost all of us learned; using the double division method; or even using a calculator. The best way might be to use a calculator—but, then what do you do with that decimal remainder?! Or, the best way might be to use double division. The truth is, everyone needs to be able to get the right answer (the correct outcome), but we do not necessarily need to use the same method (the process).

But, as parents and educators we sometimes value the “process over the outcome.” I wrote an article once about how to do double division. You would have thought I suggested something completely absurd. I was accused of allowing students to be lazy and that I lacked mathematical “rigor.”

Another area where we experience this is when using the computer. For most software programs there are multiple ways to arrive at the same product. I often teach people how to use software. Invariably I will be showing how to do something, and someone will say, “You can also….” They will then tell everyone a different way to do the same thing. It really doesn’t matter how you do something as long as you are able to get the product you want in the end.

There are many examples of this both in and out of school. At home, for example, there are processes in place for when and how to do laundry, where to do homework, how to set the table, or how to put the dishes in the dishwasher.

As parents and teachers, we need to keep an open mind. If your son can arrive at the correct—or at least acceptable—outcome every time using his own process, why not allow it? His way might turn out to be better than yours! This may lead to fewer arguments, which is definitely a good thing. It also gives parents another way to allow their children to make choices for themselves. This is an important part of growing up and learning responsibility. Think about the needed outcome and stay open minded about the best way to achieve it.

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