Process Education: Past, Present, and Future

Kathleen Burke,

Betty Lawrence,

Mohamed El-Sayed, and Dan Apple

SUNY Cortland

SUNY Empire
State College

Kettering University


Pacific Crest



Process Education (PE), a term that came into being twenty-five years ago, is built upon a foundation of educational philosophies and approaches centered in active and facilitated learning. In this paper we define Process Education and identify some of its underlying concepts and the related efforts. The evolution of Process Education is then traced, followed by examples of its impact within higher education. Future directions of Process Education are also explored.


“Process Education™ can be defined as a performance-based philosophy of education which integrates many different educational theories, processes, and tools in emphasizing the continuous development of learning skills through the use of assessment principles in order to produce learner self-development” (

Process Education (PE) principles are founded on two basic beliefs. First, no one should be marginalized: all learners have the capacity to improve the quality of their learning. Every learner can learn to learn better, regardless of his or her current level of achievement; one's potential is not limited by current ability. Second, educators have a responsibility to “raise the bar” in their profession: learning is enhanced for all learners when educators help build learning skills, create and improve quality learning environments, design solid coherent curricula, and serve as effective facilitators of learning.

PE thrives within an assessment culture as opposed to a culture of evaluation. In the traditional educational model, the focus is upon evaluation—an educator judges a student’s efforts and performance against an objective criteria with standards. While this evaluation does provide a useful "snapshot" of performance, it does not encourage the growth of that performance. Through the careful use of assessment, however, students can continually improve the quality of their performance.

The goal of PE is to develop individuals into self-growers. That is, a learner who seeks to improve his or her own learning performance; can create his or her own challenges; serves as a leader and mentor to others; takes control of his or her own destiny — "there are no bounds", and self-assesses and self-mentors to facilitate his or her own growth.

As an introduction to Process Education we first seek to explain the educational theories and philosophies that are incorporated into PE and further discuss some of the related efforts from the ideas and research of educational philosophers. We then discuss the nearly 25 year evolution of Process Education to its current state. We then discuss the current impact that PE has made on higher education and finally present possible avenues for PE to grow in the future.

Educational Philosophies

The word education usually refers to the process of cultivating a set of knowledge, skills, beliefs, attitudes, values, and character traits (Frankena, 1971). Traditionally, educational philosophies were “developed by philosophers such as, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and John Locke–as part of their philosophical systems, in the context of their ethical theories” (Frankena, 1971). Lately, educational philosophies “tended to be developed in schools of education in the context of what is called foundations of education, thus linking it with other parts of the discipline of education–educational history, psychology, and sociology–rather than with other parts of philosophy” (Frankena, 1971). For this reason different perspectives have dominated educational philosophies. “At one time, the field was defined around canonical works on education by great philosophers (Plato of ancient Greece, the eighteenth-century Swiss-born Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others); at other times, the field was dominated, in the United States at least, by the figure of John Dewey (1859–1952) and educational Progressivism" (Burbules & Raybeck, 2003).

The traditional prescriptive approach and most pervasive is “to offer a philosophically defended conception of what the aims and activities of teaching ought to be” (Burbules & Raybeck, 2003). “In some instances, as in Plato's Republic, these prescriptions derive from an overall utopian vision; in other instances, such as seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education or Rousseau's Émile, they derive from a fairly detailed re-conception of what the day-to-day activities of teaching should look like; in still other instances, such prescriptions are derived from other social or moral principles, as in various Kantian views of education (even though eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant himself had very little to say on the subject). These prescriptive inclinations are in many respects what people expect from philosophy of education: a wiser perspective, a more encompassing social vision, a sense of inspiration and higher purpose. It is what people usually mean when they talk about having a philosophy of education." (Burbules & Raybeck, 2003).

The newer extension to the traditional approach “can be comprised in what was once called the "isms" approach (perennialism, idealism, realism, Thomism, and so on)–the idea that a set of philosophical premises could generate a comprehensive and consistent educational program” (Burbules & Raybeck, 2003). For many years, working out the details of these "philosophies of education" was considered the main substance of the field, and the debates among the "isms" were typically at the very basic level debates among fundamentally different philosophical premises. An implication of this approach was that disagreements tended to be broadly "paradigmatic" in the sense that they were based on all-or-none commitments; one could not, of course, talk about a synthesis of realist and idealist worldviews” (Burbules & Raybeck, 2003).

One of the reactions to the “ism” of behaviorism falls under the umbrella of constructivism. Constructivism is built upon the cognitive theory of development of Piaget and states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than an acquiring of knowledge. This knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses made about the environment. Piaget’s contribution was to identify stages of development which other theorists built on. Vygotsky’s social developmental theory, for example, focused more on the influence of social interaction in the process of cognitive development. Jerome Bruner also looked to environmental and experiential factors. His book, The Process of Education, built on constructivism, especially the structure of learning and learning readiness, leading to approaches such as the spiral curriculum and discovery learning.

As an educational philosophy Process Education is a synthesis of realist and idealist worldviews, mostly under the general area of constructivism with focus on performance. It integrates constructivism with continuous development, performance measures, and assessment principles in order to produce learner growth, promote critical thinking and continuous improvement. In its core Process Education can be viewed as a performance-based philosophy established on “Guided-Constructivism”.

Related Efforts

Process Education, with its foundation in the principles of constructivism, shares many of its approaches with other approaches to curriculum development and educational models.

For example, Kolb spoke of the benefits of learning from experience. He proposed a learning cycle, starting from concrete experience with observation and reflection on that experience moving to forming abstract concepts and testing these concepts in new situations (Kolb and Fry, 1975). Experiential education emerged from his ideas, which, according to the Association for Experiential Education, is defined as, “a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values” ( Table 1 states the principles of experiential education according to the Association of Experiential Education. Proponents of service learning embrace many of these principles as well (

TABLE 1: Principles of Experiential Education (source

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.

  • Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.

  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.

  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.

  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.

  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.

  • The educator and learner may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.

  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.

  • The educator's primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.

  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.

  • Educators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the learner.

  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Connected with experiential education is the concept of discovery learning, also known as inquiry-based learning, which builds on the ideas of Dewey, Piaget and other constructivists. Dewey wrote (1938), "There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education". Through discovery learning, the learner is placed in situations whereby he or she calls on prior knowledge and past experience to discover new information or skills. Discovery learning situations can range from totally open to ones structured carefully by a facilitator to lead the learner to a planned destination. "Emphasis on discovery in learning has precisely the effect on the learner of leading him to be a constructionist, to organize what he is encountering in a manner not only designed to discover regularity and relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have to be put." (Bruner, 1962).

Educational theorists like Tough and Knowles have applied these concepts to adults, using the term self-directed learning. Self-directed learning has become increasingly important as our rapidly changing world necessitates lifelong learning well beyond the formal classroom. Knowles was an especially strong advocate for the self-directed learner, arguing that proactive learners enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation, leading to increased retention (Knowles, 1975).

Process Education also shares many components with problem-based learning, or PBL ( PBL was introduced as a term at McMaster University and was written on extensively by Barrows and Tamblyn, who applied it to medical education. In medical education, faculty were frustrated with the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods. They found that graduates in their internships after medical school were often not able to apply what they had learned to the challenges they faced in the hospital.

Through PBL, students are presented with an ill-defined problem. They work cooperatively to solve the problem, accessing resources as needed. An important component of PBL is that it is student-centered, with the students, rather than the instructor, managing the problem-solving process. The faculty member in PBL serves as a facilitator of that learning. Central to many of the methods described above is the role of the faculty member as a facilitator of the learning process. There are many strategies for facilitative learning, with the main goal of moving the teacher away from the center and locus of control. Many have written about the use of cooperative learning in education. As Wong and Wong stated in 1998, "Cooperative learning is not so much learning to cooperate as it is cooperating to learn." As they and others have indicated, cooperative learning extends far deeper than just placing students in groups. Two elements are key, according to proponents of cooperative learning: positive interdependence and group and individual accountability.

Another powerful method is one of peer tutoring. Peer tutoring can occur between an expert and a novice, but sometimes involves pairs where neither is the expert. Although there are extensive research articles about the effectiveness of peer tutoring, it has never emerged as a prevalent practice in the classroom.

More prevalent has been the concept of mentoring. Traditionally, the mentor has been seen as the “sage,” but more recent formulations have positioned the mentor as more equal to the “learner” and one who also learns from the interaction. The mentor does, however, engage with the learner in what is sometimes terms “authentic assessment” or “performance-based assessment. These strategies draw on the PBL and experiential learning described above. Assuming a learner is placed at the center of the learning experience, different strategies are needed to assess their performance. The facilitator, or mentor, works with the student to identify their level of performance. Often, rubrics are developed to assist in the identification of these levels of performance.

The mentor, or facilitator of learning, may also utilize instructional scaffolding to assist the learner, based on the ideas of Jerome Bruner. In scaffolding, the task is adjusted based on the current level of the student. Bruner spoke of a spiral curriculum, meaning that the learner is guided from level to level by carefully building on previous learning experiences. Scaffolding is also an aspect of the approach of differentiated instruction, where the teacher adjusts the learning situation to the learner, rather than imposing a set curriculum on the students.

Tied to the approaches of facilitated learning and cooperative learning is the valuing of the learning community. Many have looked to the writings of Paulo Freire who articulated the importance of dialogue, with dialogue meaning not one person acting on another, but people working with each other in community.

All of these efforts are built upon the ideas and research efforts of many educational philosophers and practitioners. In the next section on process education, you will see the parallels to these efforts. The primary difference, however, will be in the level of comprehensiveness and the structures that proponents of process education have developed to implement its principles.

The Evolution of Process Education

In 1985, Pacific Crest began introducing its software, PC Solve, to institutions of higher education across the country. They conducted small workshops illustrating how students were able to independently learn this software by processing the information presented within the software’s help system. The students were to read this information critically in order to utilize and gain an understanding of the given examples. To succeed, the students needed to take risks and try things out. Through the use of analysis and synthesis they would apply the appropriate tools to the problems presented. Finally, Pacific Crest demonstrated (to the faculty observing) how students were able to utilize generalizations and transfer skills to apply what they were learning to new situations. Within the following years, Pacific Crest added reflection and self-assessment to this process so that the meta-cognition of what was happening was apparent to the students themselves. These informal self-assessments allowed the students to reflect on their learning which helped to improve their future learning.

Between 1989 and 1990 Pacific Crest conducted an empirical study of 22 colleges from across the country. These institutions included an engineering college, a business college, a women’s college, a highly selective research university, as well as several liberal arts, state and technical colleges. At each institution a random sample of seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen were selected by faculty and a competition was set up pitting the seniors against each of the other three class levels. The students were asked to perform different challenging tasks that required them to think about information critically, process it and transfer it to new situations. The faculty observed their students perform for this 90 to 120 minute period. By the end, the faculty were very frustrated and often very disappointed with their seniors, because the seniors performance was not significantly different from that of the freshmen. This convinced Pacific Crest that current practices within higher education were not helping students develop life-long learning skills given that their learner performance was not significantly different over the four years of college.

This research helped Pacific Crest develop two key resources. The first was the Learning Process Methodology (LPM). The LPM models how to learn about something using key steps. Faculty could implement the LPM to assist them in teaching students how to learn. Second, Pacific Crest began the Classification of Learning Skills. This list identified over 250 transferable skills that could be used to enhance any learning context. The list includes skills such as listening, persisting, transferring, and articulating an idea.

In 1991, Pacific Crest held its first “Problem Solving across the Curriculum” conference. The conference was attended by over 100 faculty from various disciplines. The faculty set out to define a set to practices and approaches that would empower students to succeed. Many of the conversations regarding these practices lasted until the early hours of the morning. These discussions were the beginning development of the philosophy of Process Education and inspired an annual meeting for this conference.

These practices and approaches were first implemented in 1994 at the Learning to Learn Camp. This camp was geared toward the “at-risk” population in Higher Education. The goal was to prove that all students could perform up to the college’s expectations and graduate with success. In just one week, all parties involved in the first Learning to Learn Camp understood how powerful Process Education was. They observed how it had transformed individual lives even though the supporting practices that currently exist for these camps were, for most part, at a beginning level of implementation.

In 1994, Betty Lawrence and Dan Apple presented the paper “Education as a Process” at the International Teaching Effectiveness Conference. It received very positive reviews and later that fall, it became the first official articulation of “Process Education” by Pacific Crest. The ten Principles of Process Education were written and with only small changes still exist as the underlying principles behind PE. These principles in the current format are listed below.

TABLE 2: Principles of Process Education

  1. Every learner can learn to learn better, regardless of current level of achievement; one’s potential is not limited by current ability.

  2. Although everyone requires help with learning at times, the goal is to become a capable, self-sufficient, lifelong learner.

  3. An empowered learner is one who uses learning processes and self-assessment to improve future performance.

  4. Educators should assess students regularly by measuring accomplishments, modeling assessment processes, providing timely feedback, and helping students improve their self-assessment skills.

  5. Faculty must accept fully the responsibility for facilitating student success.

  6. To develop expertise in a discipline, a learner must develop a specific knowledge base in that field, but also acquire generic, lifelong learning skills that relate to all disciplines.

  7. In a quality learning environment, facilitators of learning (teachers) focus on improving specific learning skills through timely, appropriate, and constructive interventions.

  8. Mentors use specific methodologies that model the steps or activities they expect students to use in achieving their own learning goals.

  9. An educational institution can continually improve its effectiveness in producing stronger learning outcomes in several ways: (1) By aligning institutional, course, and program objectives; (2) By investing in faculty development, curricular innovation, and design of performance measures; (3) By embracing an assessment culture

  10. A process educator can continuously improve the concepts, processes, and tools used by doing active observation and research in the classroom.

Current Impact of Process Education

Through the use of these 10 principles, Process Education is transforming Higher Education by empowering faculty, students, and administrators. To date, Pacific Crest has visited more than 1,800 colleges and universities, facilitated faculty development for more than 20,000 educators, and worked with more than 25,000 students in classroom situations. Pacific Crest currently offers 22 different types of professional development institutes as well as customized workshops.

To assist the facilitation and demand for PE workshops, Pacific Crest has currently established eight Regional Professional Development Centers across the United States. These Centers are dedicated to transforming the quality of teaching and learning in different areas of the country, leading to increased student retention and success at all levels. Each development center hosts three different faculty development institutes each year, as part of its commitment to transforming the quality of teaching and learning in Higher Education. An individual center has the opportunity to choose its own events, unique to the needs, culture, and individual goals of each college. Area colleges are invited to attend each institute in order to bolster the collaborative relationships among neighboring colleges (

Pacific Crest’s view of the interrelatedness of PE within higher education has evolved over the past 25 years and can currently be depicted through the Compass of Higher Education.

Research on all of the aspects of PE depicted within the compass has been conducted. A comprehensive resource on research within Process Education is the Faculty Guidebook. The Faculty Guidebook enhances the reader’s understanding of the various contexts of education and serves as an authoritative resource that fosters transformation in the five areas of development: professional, learner, intellectual, institutional, and self development. More than 45 different authors have shared their research on the best practices to improve both teaching and learning within the fourth edition of the Faculty Guidebook. This edition contains one hundred forty-six modules, blending theory and practice in an easy-to-use format on such topics as mentoring, assessment and evaluation, instructional design, program assessment, and creating quality learning environments. It is very accessible since it is packaged in short, comprehensive two to four page modules, thus, making it is easy to quickly absorb research, apply, and disseminate new teaching/learning knowledge and classroom innovations (

Another result of research within PE, particularly on effective learning techniques, resulted in the development of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). POGIL is a technique that creates a research based learning environment in the classroom or lab where students learn course content as well as learning process skills while working on guided inquiry activities in small collaborative groups. The instructor facilitates this learning by asking guiding questions to the teams as they work (

The individuals involved in Process education have formed a community of practice, the Academy of Process Educators. According to the Academy’s website (, the Academy “drives transformational change in education by generating, disseminating, and archiving research based on Process Education principles through:

  • the advancement of scholarship in teaching and learning

  • advocacy on key educational issues

  • building an Academy research program

  • the professional development of educators

  • coaching and mentoring

[Furthermore], the Academy engages, supports, and collaborates with a community of educators by:

  • delivering an annual conference

  • producing a selective, peer-reviewed journal

  • developing and endorsing position papers

  • modeling key elements of Process Education

  • facilitating members’ participation in other professional venues”

Process Education Growing into the Future

The goal of Process Education is to create self-growers. Pacific Crest, the Academy of Process Educators, and the thousands of active users of PE are continually refining and growing Process Education. Areas for growth in PE include, developing technology that will assist educators in measuring performance; understanding what PE tools are most highly utilized by practitioners and determining if there is a pattern behind their usage;  examining and refining these tools to take into account students’ use and knowledge of emerging technologies; and certifying PE skill usage through a Master’s Degree.

Pacific Crest has identified that technology for “measuring performance to enhance performance” is one of the most important transformational changes required by Higher Education. An increasing number of arenas including federal and state governments, accreditation agencies (both institutional and program) and other HE stakeholders are requiring colleges to effectively use performance measures to document and improve student learning and growth. Pacific Crest has begun the process of creating the Performance Measurement and Enhancement System/Results Measurement System (PMES) which will collect, store, assess, and analyze measurement data to help make better decisions for performance improvement. The data available through this system will allow PE researchers to expand and certify its inventory of measures more efficiently and effectively as well as enable the certification of new measures.

Another area for exploration and growth for process educators concerns emerging technologies. Social networking not only presents a way for friends to meet; it changes the way our youth learn. The concept of research has morphed from a primarily solitary venture to an opportunity for one’s network to share resources with each other. Linear thought is being replaced by interconnected ideas. How will methodologies in Process Education be transformed by this move away from linearity? Moreover, how can process educators use social networking tools to facilitate learning in this new generation of learners?

As we have discussed, there is a common theoretical foundation to Process Education. The tools that are used by Process Educators, however, may be as varied as the many disciplines they represent. Which tools are most commonly used by process educators? Is there a pattern behind their usage? That is, does a pattern exist to which tools are used by particular disciplines? Are there a set of “best practices” that all Process Educators use to significantly produce greater results than their peers?

Finally, Pacific Crest is in the process of developing a certification of process education through the development of a Masters Degree and Certificate in Process Education offered through Northeastern University. This Masters degree will bring Process Education into the K-12 curriculum by advancing the performance of these teachers with the help of Pacific Crest’s professional development institutes. As PE spreads into the K-12 level, what new insights will these new PE practitioners bring to Higher Education?

The answers to these questions will help PE grow and reach into new venues. If you are interested in helping to answer these questions please or if you would like to obtain any more information on Process Education, the following table will assist you in determining the proper contact.

Area of Interest Contact Link
Joining a community of practice Academy of Process Educators
Science education POGIL
Publishing in the Faculty Guidebook Steve Beyerlein, Editor
Professional Development Institutes Pacific Crest
Publishing Process Curriculum Pacific Crest
Performance Measurement Pacific Crest
Research in Process Education International Journal of Process Education

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