Messy Learning and Tidy Classrooms


My students will be making towers with straws today. Every Friday, we do a quick design challenge. It will get loud in here. Chaos will ensue. It will be safe, but it will be messy. Students will forget to throw pieces of straw in the trash. Kids might get frustrated and I'll step in and help navigate the conflict.

It will be just as messy when they write, though less so in the physical space and more in the mental space. Here, students will move around periodically, but spend most of the time on their Chromebooks. The mess will involve the writing process. We don't follow a rigid system of pre-write to write to edit to re-edit. Instead, students alternate between writing, editing, researching and re-writing depending upon the need.

Writing is messy.

For all the tidy objectives, graphic organizers and scheduled lessons I do, I want my class to be messy. I want students to struggle with questions rather than finding simple answers. I want them to work at different paces. I want them to have the permission to move. I want them to find the messy connections between ideas.

I am not anti-structure. Artists, scientists and authors all have structure. However, structure doesn't have to mean tidiness. Learning isn't tidy. It's not antiseptic. It's not comfortable. Sometimes it's quiet. Sometimes it looks very orderly. But in the cognitive and social spaces, it remains messy.

And yet . . .

I am more apt to embrace the mess at home than I am at school. Part of this has to do with the size and space. Our home is large and I have a "class size" of three. Plus, at home, kids can go outside at any time. But it's more than that. At home, I am more likely to see kids as whole people rather than students. I want to see them learn, yes, but I also want to see them fall in love with learning.

Still, that's not it entirely. I often stop the messes out of a fear of being judged. I don't want to be known for having a loud class or a crazy class. I don't want to be dinged for failing to do objectives properly or have data charts up on the wall. And ultimately, when I know I will be judged for my test scores, I find myself scared about how to get messy learners to play the tidy testing game.
SHARE

John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

  • Image
  • Image
  • Image
  • Image
    Blog Comments
    Facebook Comments

21 comments:

  1. For the record, I still haven't figured out entirely how to handle the mess and chaos and balance it with the structure. It's tricky. It's paradoxical. It's nuanced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For some other ideas:
      Try towers with twigs... Or bridges with straws or twigs. And see how much the bridge can hold.
      You can use glue, but thread is also an interesting bonding agent.
      Weaving works, but not many can achieve a stable structure.
      (The toothpick ones take too long, use too much glue/thread, and are very messy.)

      Delete
  2. All of your pictures are from your home. Why not just support unschooling and ditch school altogether?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In a utopian reality, where every child had a parent who was free to do that and able (in temperament and skill) that would be great. It's just not a reality.

      Delete
  3. Although I believe that constructivist learning is going to be messier and noisier and can accept this on an intellectual level, the reality is that as the messiness and noise escalates I can feel the balance of control(?) tipping away from me. I'm not sure 'control' is the right word, but it's close. I think as I've become a more experienced teacher I've been able to tolerate this feeling for longer periods, especially as I've gained practice at guiding the class back to tidy & quiet from what feels like the brink of chaos =) It's definitely a work in progress for me too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There's nothing wrong with some structure. If an environment has no structure, I will get antsy and even angry. I don't want to get to that place. But messy can also be safe. That's the tricky part. I haven't figured it out, but I know it works.

      Delete
  4. My classroom is best described as "organized chaos." It seriously is a wonder I can find anything. And when we're working, I'm very often passive when it comes to controlling the action in the room. I mean, I shush the crowd when the decibel level gets way too high, but that's just out of consideration for the classroom adjacent to mine.

    I will say, though, that whenever I have days where the students are working on their own, I often get paranoid that an admin will walk in, want to know what's going on and I'll get in trouble for not having an organized, objective-driven activity for which everyone is exactly on task.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think what I am feeling is very similar to what you describe in that second paragraph.

      Delete
  5. As a principal, I generally enjoy walking into those "messy" learning environments. While having an actual mess is generally detrimental, I think that noise, movement, enthusiasm, choice, and motivation are great things to see. Now, that is not to say that it should not be directed toward a learning goal; but usually if I ask the students what they are doing and why they are doing it, they can make the curricular connections if the "messy" learning is set up properly. I say keep on being messy and remember that some people see a Jackson Pollack as some splattered paint and some see it as a work of art. Take a step back, if you see art, keep going!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad to hear a principal who is open to the mess. That's awesome.

      Delete
  6. I've always believed that classrooms should be messy and noisy. And yet, in my new first grade adventure, I feel a little reluctant to let that happen. We've been doing noise and mess in small doses...and this class almost demands time to talk and collaborate. But often I feel that the objectives and direction are getting lost in the (sometimes not so organized) chaos. Maybe part of that feeling is because this is my first year doing this. And as I grow more experiences, I can move more toward the teaching I've always thought I was (when working with preschool groups). The other first grade classes seem so much more controlled and quiet. But maybe that's not the best (or at least the only) way. Hmm. Now I need some reflection time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I get that reluctance. I feel it, too. It's tricky, really tricky. And it's far more complex than some of the platitudes that you read on Twitter.

      Delete
  7. I was a really anxious kid, and organization was my way of gaining some control over my life. Being in That One Classroom where the mess spilled over onto every counter and my papers came back with coffee on them was stressful. Structure is security.

    I think the trick is having a structure to contain the mess, so that the mess has boundaries. I had a messy writing process, so I invented a binder system to capture and sort my scattered ideas after I got them down, and an archival system for my finished work (a box of manila envelopes that's still in my parents' basement somewhere). It might have helped to have that explicitly in school, instead of having to invent it from scratch.

    Of course, I also grew up to be a GTD nerd, which relies on the same principle: establish a reliable capture/sort system, so that you're relaxed enough to make glorious creative messes, without worrying about the cleanup.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "I was a really anxious kid, and organization was my way of gaining some control over my life. "

      That was me, too. So, I'm wondering what it looks like to protect kids who need additional structure while allowing for the mess. And I'm wondering if the mess can be less about a physical mess and more about messy thinking.

      Delete
  8. Messy, energetic, engaging, and dynamic can all be outstanding ingredients for a learner-centered classroom environment. Reminds me of a fantastic art teacher from my district. Her room is a whirling mess, and I love it. Ian Hoke wrote a great post about a similar topic here. http://www.educommunicate.org/?p=160

    ReplyDelete
  9. I used to be a messy teacher and then for some reason I started to become the "in-front-of-the-classroom" deliverer of knowledge. I want to become that messy teacher again, but I am a little scared that my scores will come up short!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The fear of low scores can be a real downer. I experience that often.

      Delete
  10. Brilliant conversation. I think there needs to be something for every learning style. The noisy, social collaborative approach is ideal for some but not for others. Quiet reflection is perfect for some and challenging for others. We can't expect the world to adapt to our needs all the time so it makes sense that kids get used to a variety of approaches to learning, settings, noise levels etc. Sometimes it fits like a glove and sometimes it's uncomfortable but tolerable. If we offer lots of variety then it helps everyone to grow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm still trying to figure out the balance.

      Delete
  11. Hey John. The issue with creative types is they value creation. The mess doesn't matter as along as the creating happens. "Befriend the guy who vacuums" or buy your own: that was my motto when I taught First Graders. I still go through about 2 vacuums yearly at my ripe old age of 48- at home and work. The fallout is inconsequential. Rock on!

    ReplyDelete

Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.