It was a shock when a messy teacher came to our school. Some kids were covered in paint literally from head to toe and others were chasing butterflies around the garden. Other teachers hovered around nervously, trying in vain to herd the young children to get cleaned up and inside before anyone noticed.
And what was the messy teacher doing? She was unfazed, happy even, sitting in the grass surrounded by little ones joyfully squishing finger paint between their fingers and slopping it on the giant joint art poster.
Messy teaching. Yeah, that’s messy alright. Maybe things went a bit far and in the future a better clean-up plan was in order, but we all learned a lot from the messy teacher that year. We learned to appreciate her methods and even started getting a bit messier ourselves. Before you write it off as crazy talk, consider these interesting points that everyone ought to know about messy teaching:
Life is Messy
Life isn’t nicely divided into math, science and history. Our work places don’t hand out rubrics and final grades. Sometimes our lives and houses are turned upside down while we work on new projects, try new things and simply live. We feel happy, frustrated, sad, confused, exasperated, elated and triumphant (sometimes all in the same day!)
In education, allowing real problems and experiences to happen is helpful – not harmful. It takes a bit of letting go and becoming comfortable with a bit of mess, both literally and figuratively, but putting a filter on learning in which everything is cookie cutter perfect just isn’t authentic. This means that mistakes are a part of classroom life and as teachers we almost plan for them. In preschool, this may mean using some breakable objects in the classroom such as glass vases. In high school we might go ahead and let them chat straight through group time once or twice to learn a lesson in time management.
Also just as in life there are stages, some messier and some more focused, in the classroom stages can be allowed as well. This is wonderfully accomplished through using self-directed learning techniques and project based learning. The natural progression from brainstorming to creating and finally presenting is designed for some messiness for sure.
Control and Freedom
Our messy teacher didn’t feel like things were out of control on what we would come to know as “the paint day.” Allowing this experience to happen was part of her plan, and having all children doing exactly the same thing wasn’t necessary for her to feel in control. The kids were free to experiment with the materials offered or catch butterflies – both worthy activities at the preschool age.
Later, we would learn to respect her style and trust that no child would be hurt or lost in her care. Messy teaching means allowing for freedom within limits. Her limits were safe and she always provided interesting and engaging options for the children to work on during art time. Freedom of choice is an essential life skill. Offering real choices to children about how they spend their time, how they choose to learn and what they learn about are valuable lessons. After all, we forge our own paths. The teacher can be responsible for exposing students to many options, but it is the student who chooses her interests.
If we give everything to students, nicely laid out showing them exactly what to do every step of the way with no unpredictable components, students don’t get to problem solve, question things and learn how to learn.
So get a bit messier. Give up some control. Watch your students experience real, authentic and messy life.