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.


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 .

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