Parents, students, and teachers bustled about my classroom on Friday in celebration of our research projects. The beautiful chaos of serendipitous collision of students with parents created a wonderful energy representative of what learning truly should be.
However, this beautiful chaos — just one week prior — was not quite as beautiful. In fact, it was simply chaos.
“Everyone,” I called to the class, “we need to meet on the carpet.”
All of the students came over, sitting on the perimeter of our blue and white patterned rug. They sat tentatively, because I didn’t have to say anything for them to know how I was feeling. It seemed that, in the process of communicating this project, the original intention had been somewhat lost in translation, and we needed to get back on track. Stat.
“Boys and girls,” I said, “we have a bit of a mess, here.”
My blood pressure slowly started to lower as we reconvened. I paused.
“And that’s okay: sometimes things get messy, but what do we do when we have a mess?”
“Uh, keep working?” one student replied.
“We could keep working!” I said in response. Not quite the answer I was looking for. “What else?”
“Clean it up!” another student retorted.
“Exactly,” I replied. “Sometimes, when we have a mess, we just have to clean it up, so here’s what we’re going to do.”
I continued on, helped them set some firmer deadlines, gave some clearer constraints, and sent them off to work with some more structure. I felt better, they seemed more industrious, and our class seemed to finish the day with greater purpose. And exactly one week later, I saw the fruits of our discussion drop into the hands of the parents, students, and visitors that viewed our projects.
It’s funny: we want our students to get lost in the process of learning, and we want them to know what it feels like to get into a “flow.” It’s tricky, though, because if we lose sight of the product and if the delicate balance between process and product becomes broken, the process, in turn, fails as well. Kids need constraints, they need structure, and they sometimes need someone to help them clean up the messiness that is learning.
But the best part is, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.
Living in the mess and being lost can be really good, and messy learning can be even better — as long as it’s done right. Learning doesn’t come from simply sitting in the mess; instead, learning comes from recognizing the mess, using is as a learning experience, and cleaning it up, as a result.
Not only do I feel like my students learned something from this messy and complex process, but I did, too. I learned that too much freedom and not enough structure is actually counterproductive to the learning process; I learned that overvaluing the process and not helping students see the end product provides too much ambiguity for them to feel safe; and I learned one more thing, too, that I keep learning over and over again.
Learning is messy, and cleaning up the mess makes us better at what we do.