The Process vs The Results: The Chief Philosophical Divide in Modern Education

“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

~Deng Xiaoping


Thanks to the magic of a DVR, I am postponing the beginning of the Division I National Championship football game for a few minutes in order to bypass some of the commercials.  As I sit here waiting and thinking about the upcoming game, I have to consider who I will cheer for in the game.  For me, some of this determination has to do with which of the two coaches I find myself agreeing with, liking, and sympathizing with more than the other.  In regards to these coaches, Saban and Swinney, who do you believe is the better coach?  I mean if you had to simply decide who does the best job coaching a team, which one has the edge in your mind?  I think most of us, if we are honest, would find ourselves gravitating toward one or the other who in our own view epitomizes more of the characteristics we believe are essential in a truly great coach.  Now ask yourself another question, did you find yourself only discussing the results of the coaches’ professional practice (such as wins/losses, national championships, number of players getting drafted, league championships, etc.) or did you find yourself also discussing characteristics of the coaches’ professional process (such as demeanor, practice methods, discipline, etc.)  I would be willing to bet for most of us to varying degrees the “process” elements creep into our analysis of how “good” these men are at coaching in spite of the quantitative results their methods yielded.

You have Dabo Swinney, head coach of Clemson, a man who literally wears his heart on his sleeve.  Swinney is the classic underdog in many ways.  He took the reins of Clemson quite few years ago as a midseason interim coach who no one really believed had what it took to be the head of that program.  But, winning a rivalry game against South Carolina and becoming bowl eligible, made this man, who seemed totally unashamed to show his emotions through his heartfelt speeches and postgame comments, somehow the head of a major program.  However, it seemed one of those situations where no one believed he would really make it into a long term success.  Instead, giving him the job just seemed like an obligation on the part of the Clemson higher ups for winning games that he was not supposed to win and seemingly capturing the heart of his players in the process.  Swinney is the type of coach who you can picture literally hugging his players with tears in his eyes either overcome with joy and/or grief.

Then you have Nick Saban, the high profile, hard nose, process oriented coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Saban is known for his tough manner.  Whereas, Swinney predominantly displays “positive” emotions publicly, Saban’s emotional outbursts are generally toward the other end of the spectrum.  Hardly ever cracking a smile when involved with “the process” of his football coaching, Saban has won multiple national championships at two different schools.  Saban is stoic in his actions for the most part, except when chastising those around him.  He is methodical and tough, the two qualities which conventional wisdom traditionally has said that successful coaches should possess.

Yes, the contrast between these two coaches is stark.  Some will side with Swinney as the preferred coach as the positive follower of Jon Gordon who they see as a positive, inspirational leader.  Others will side with Saban as the disciplined, coach and leader who, at least publicly, seems to intimidate those around him into giving their best performances.  However, there can only be one winner of the national championship.  So the question will be at the end of the game, which will matter more as far as judging the coach, the one whose process we most agree with or the one who produces the end result of a championship trophy over his head?

While I will ultimately have to root for Alabama as an SEC school, it is not without reservation as my heart tells me to root for Clemson and their coach because of their heart and seemingly their lack of respect by everyone around them.  These differences and my personal feelings aside, I feel that Saban and Swinney illustrate one of the fundamental questions about how we choose to evaluate the job leaders and professionals do in their fields, the question of which is more important “the process” or “the results.”  Especially for those in education today, one of the fundamental questions is whether we will choose to emphasize the results or whether we will emphasize the steps taken to yield results as being the most important.  In my personal view, this “process versus results” choice is the most important question we are wrestling with today in education.

Education has traditionally been dominated by a “process” oriented approach.  Whether you believe in a top-down leadership model (which still has a stranglehold on public education in many areas of the country) or a more diffuse form of collegial leadership (which is advocated more today), both approaches emphasize “the process.”  Leaders or peers pop in to “evaluate” other teachers based upon the process they observe.  These evaluations factor heavily, if not exclusively in some cases, on the judgment of whether a teacher is doing his or her job in the classroom.  How do we judge professional learning community (PLC) development and usage in the school?  Is it not via observation?  Almost every measure that professors in college teacher education programs, education authors, and speakers advocate as a means of evaluation is ultimately “process” oriented.  Clearly, the insiders of public education have traditionally and still do emphasize “the process” even though the characteristics of this process may have changed in their criteria over the years.

On the other hand are those who choose to emphasize “the results.”  Much like the pragmatic view attributed to Deng Xiaoping of China, they do not care what color the cat may be, as long as it catches mice.  The desire by many, often outside of professional education circles, to move away from “process” oriented means of evaluation of teaching effectiveness and towards a “results” oriented means of evaluation is the basis of many of our so-called “accountability models” and the formalized “high stakes” testing we have seen implemented over the years.  To the “results” oriented person the methodology one uses does not matter (as long as it is ethical and legal), it is just the final learning outcome measured in the student which matters.  Underpinning the “results” oriented mindset, is the assumption that no one is able to fully judge what process may work for one particular administrator/teacher for one particular group of students at one particular time as being the best simply by measuring how it meets certain “process” criteria.  Instead, totally different approaches could be used depending upon the individual circumstance and both could be judged as being equal, as long as both produced the desired result in measurable increases of learning in students.

In the near future, I hope to explore this issue in greater depth.  However, I thought the contrast tonight between these two coaches’ approach made for a nice introduction to this topic.  As you watch the game tonight and find yourself evaluating these two coaches, ask yourself which is ultimately the most important criteria in your judgment:  the process of coaching you most agree with or the results they produce regardless of steps taken to get there?  Which side you find the most important may actually tell something about how you view teaching effectiveness as well.  But, do not forget both of these men have made it to the pinnacle of their sport this season and yet both have done so employing very different philosophies and methodologies.  Do you think it would be best to evaluate them based upon results or based upon the characteristics we have predetermined in our mind which “should” yield the desired results?

More to come on this “process oriented” versus “results oriented” approach in public education in the near future…

-Clint Stroupe


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