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Educational Clarity: Content versus Process 

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop 

your senses – especially learn how to see. Realise that 

everything connects to everything else.

-Leonardo da Vinci-

Educators' primary role at all levels is to expand students' knowledge. This helps to distinguish between "what" we learn and "how" we learn. 

Broadly, knowledge is divided into two categories: content and process. Content refers to what we learn, while process pertains to how we learn it. Children, from the earliest ages, can engage in these learning processes, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for cognitive activities.

Understanding Content: The "What" of Learning

Content encompasses the concepts and information we acquire. The substantive material of learning, the factual and conceptual knowledge, forms the foundation of our understanding. When we label objects or ideas, such as a table, chair, or cat, we are engaging in conceptual learning. By applying these labels, we enter the realm of abstract thinking, enabling us to categorise and recall information about these objects even when they are not present.

A helpful metaphor shared by a four-year-old named Daniel illustrates this well. He described his brain as a cupboard with hundreds of tiny drawers, each containing a specific idea. Content is what you put in the drawers. The process involves collecting the knowledge, knowing where to store it, and which drawers to open to retrieve information. This metaphor highlights how cognitive processes acquire, organise, store, memorise, and access content.

Concepts can be further divided into two types: lower-order and higher-order. Lower-order concepts are specific labels for individual objects or ideas, like identifying a "ruler" on a desk. Higher-order concepts are more generalised and encompass groups of lower-order concepts that share key features. For instance, a "ruler" falls under the broader category of "instruments of measurement," including thermometers and barometers. Higher-order concepts are transferable across various contexts, making them efficient tools for teaching and learning.

Exploring Process: The "How" of Learning

Conversely, process refers to our cognitive activities and methods to manage, organise, and apply content. These processes include knowing, representing, thinking, comparing, categorising, recollecting, and connecting. When we become aware of our thinking processes and consciously employ them, we engage in metacognition. This higher level of thinking allows us to reflect on and control our cognitive activities, enhancing our ability to learn and apply knowledge effectively.

Children naturally employ these processes both inside and outside the classroom. For example, children might categorise animals by comparing their characteristics to understand similarities and differences. Outside the school, they might recollect and represent a story they heard by drawing pictures, thus practising their memory and representation skills.

The Interplay Between Content and Process

While the distinction between content and process is essential, recognising their interconnectedness is also important. For example, the term "comparison" is a label for a mental activity, making it a concept (content). However, we are involved in a cognitive process when we actively compare. Cognition uses these thinking processes in real time (the here and now).

In essence, content and process are two sides of the same coin. Content is the "what" – the concepts and information we seek to understand. The process is the "how" – the cognitive activities and methods we use to acquire, organise, and apply that knowledge. 

Critical Processes for Young Children

Three essential processes that young children might master are analysis, comparison, and categorisation. These active thinking processes are enjoyable for young learners and promote cognitive development. Introducing children to the language of these processes enhances their metacognitive capacity. Evidence shows that metacognition enhances learning success in students of all ages.


An example of analysis is identifying the whole and parts of something. Take an orange, for instance. There are distinguishable parts—the skin, pith, wedges, and small kernels that encapsulate the juice. The child can identify each part and describe its appearance and role. For example, noting how the shape of the wedges helps them to be encased in the skin. Analysis helps develop vocabulary and, more importantly, builds logical connections between form and function.


Comparison is a highly underestimated thinking process. Children might compare an orange with other citrus fruits or different fruits altogether. A genuine understanding of similarities and differences allows children to process details, make connections, and deepen their knowledge about different entities.


Children can categorise different objects, concepts, and ideas when they learn to analyse and compare. Categorisation helps them order their knowledge and provides a more robust logical basis for thinking about the world. For example, they might categorise fruits by type, colour, or taste, which helps them understand and remember the characteristics of each fruit.


While content and process are familiar terms, exploring them deeper and helping children recognise and use them can be rewarding. Content is the "what"—the concepts and information we seek to understand. Process is the "how"—the cognitive activities and methods we use to acquire, organise, and apply that knowledge. This understanding helps children see how everything is interconnected and how they learn.

Early educators who understand this can create a more comprehensive learning environment for young children. You might discuss with your students how their brains help them label, understand, and process information, enhancing their learning experience.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of ‘Edu-Chameleon’. Lili-Ann’s specialisations are in early childhood education (birth to nine years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition.  She runs her consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at

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