Tuesday, August 4, 2015


The inspiration for “messy learning” comes from a 5th grade classroom where teaching and learning could have earned a Nobel prize  (or maybe MacArthur genius award) for messiness, and from a middle school science teacher who was terrified of anything not precise, orderly and contained.

As fifth graders in a multi-racial elementary school in Houston watched a residential high-rise grow to loom over the neighborhood of one- and two-story homes, their teachers saw not a distraction, but an opportunity.    No, neither architecture nor urban planning nor even field trips were on the curriculum that semester.  But no set syllabus could compete with all those guys just across the street walking on I-beams ten stories up.   The teachers knew their students, and they knew how to use a telephone.

Soon, a hard-hat tour was arranged for the children. The tour was perfectly timed to see different floors in different stages of construction – from completely open, to outfitted with pipes and writing, to initial build-out of rooms and halls and windows.  

The kids were now fired up! They had been entrusted by experts with the inside knowledge of how to build a skyscraper! Next, a pair of architects volunteered to help the kids understand design and structure by having them sketch a building they’d like to build one day, then construct a model of its facades.  The entire classroom – the floor and every other horizontal space – was soon covered in pieces of tagboard in every shape and size. The challenge was to make 3-dimensional “bricks’ by folding tagboard (think manila folder material), then glue the bricks to a huge poster board as one might lay tile.  A wonderful assortment of original, unpredictable designs emerged from the utter messiness of tagboard fragments, errant splotches of glue, and of course much motion and chatter.   

But, in the words of George W. Bush, “Is our children learning?”  Yes, the kids used their math skills in measurement and proportion; yes, they read about famous buildings and their architects and wrote stories about the people and events that might one day in habit their buildings.  But this was not a stealth attempt to use a creative project to sneak in “basic skills.”  The messiness was the lesson.  The chaos was the learning experience.  The “outcome” was in the eagerness to do more.

To my knowledge, no children or animals were harmed in these projects.  Neither was any “data” produced.  Teaching was messy, the instructional process was messy to the point of chaos at times, and the learning was powerful and memorable.    And that was all on purpose.

The middle school science teacher, on the other hand, loved calm, order and precision. She prided herself on her professional demeanor with colleagues and with students.  She had not anticipated that signing up for an intensive year of study and professional development in the Rice Model Science Lab would disrupt that decorum and, again, do so with intent.

This elegant African American teacher loved living as a young professional in the city: in our almost-tropical climate, she was pleased to be able to go from her air conditioned apartment, to her air conditioned car, to her air conditioned classroom.  She saw no need to be outdoors, especially when outdoors could mean foul air and usually did mean a wilting humidity.  She was happy to announce “I’m an indoor girl.”   

So when she learned from Dr. Elnora Harcombe, the director of the Model Lab, that the Lab teachers would be going to Galveston for two days of exploring the estuaries of the Gulf Coast and, specifically, getting to know the critters inhabiting the murky tide pools, this teacher balked: “I do not put my hands into water I can’t see through.”  Her elegant manicure confirmed her assertion.

The Model Lab field trips were not optional. This “indoor” teacher went to the coast; she was given no choice but to put her hands into the tide pools.  She was shocked to be entranced by the variety of shapes and colors and movements of the tide pool creatures. She surprised everyone – but most of all herself – when she exclaimed, “I have to bring my students to see this!”

Until that day, her pride in her teaching had been in the careful organization of her classroom and her lessons, including diligently assigning her students the chapters in the life science book on the flora and fauna of aquatic habitats – which neither she nor her students had even seen, touched or smelled:   “school knowledge” as remote as the chapter on distant planets.

Her own curiosities were freed, and her willingness – even eagerness – to have her students explore – were unleashed when she risked some “messy” learning.   The “mess” would not just be chipped nail polish and clinging wet sand, but the unpredictability of what her kids would find when they – no doubt less squeamishly – reached for a hermit crab or tried to scare each other by running around waving wet strands of coastal goop.

“Messy learning” will not likely catch on in the writing of state curriculum standards. But what if it did?! What if “doing messy projects that don’t have predictable or measurable outcomes” became a required component of every subject and grade level? Would that kill creativity? (Imagine the whole new cottage industry of “messiness” consultants!! Oh, no!)  Does “messiness” need to stay subversive – to be inspiring for teachers and credible to kids?

I invite readers to nominate your own words that break the standardization/measurable outcomes mold and liberate our thinking about kids.  Words that capture what it means to discover and learn and grow. (Official words for creativity, multiple intelligences, etc., aren’t eligible – we have those already and need to hold onto them and build learning experiences around them. We need words that will open up our thinking in ways that enable us admit those concepts back into our classrooms.)  

The task right now is for us to find ways of discussing our kids and classrooms that are a bit, well, messier.

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