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AN EDUCATION IN MESSINESS

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When I was a kid at Southside Elementary School, my parents used to receive an extremely detailed report card—I’m guessing 20-plus categories in which I could be Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, and a couple of other letters (I for Improving? Dunno). Southside was innovative(!) in a number of ways, as I look back on things: 4- and5-year-old kindergarten, looped first and second grades, Spanish started in fourth grade, time for educational radio programming from the New York State School of the Air a couple of afternoons a week, and a pretty extensive art and music program with teachers I remember fondly. This, during the Eisenhower administration in a modest little burg starting its transition (still not quite completed, a half century later) from farm village to suburb.

Anyhow, those were the good old days, in their way, but what I remember most from those Southside School report cards was an emphasis on neatness. They might have cared that I had a smattering of Spanish at age 8, but they cared even more that I was neat—that my handwriting was neat and evenly spaced, that my personal habits of dress and hygiene were tidy and regular, that my desk space was orderly, and that my overall approach to work was, well, neat. My teachers must in their way have been neatniks—several had grown up on local dairy farms, a life that tends to instill a kind of orderly discipline—and certainly the “custodians,” as the buildings and grounds crew were called, were notably efficient.

Thus, “messy” was not a part of my early education; messiness was the very opposite of scholarliness as it was defined on those report cards. The good news, so to speak, is that I have never been a particular devotee of neatness; “tidy” might not make the list of Top Ten words anyone (especially my spouse) would use to describe me.

The last decade or so, then, has been liberating. It’s been the Age of Messiness in education, at least on the leading edge of education, and I like that.

What’s messy? The first time I heard the term in a post-Southside educational context it had to do with issues of historical interpretation, and for the first time I felt as though I could take a deep breath about my teaching of so many historical topics and literary interpretations where the single answer, the one cause, the received reading just seemed flat wrong—a lie that as a teacher I was supposed to be telling my students. (Good teachers, I know, have been avoiding these versions of the One Right Answer since Socrates, but we all know about the ways that “authoritative” textbooks and standardized tests pressure students and teachers alike toward clean, neat answers.)

Since then, it’s all been messy, and we are regularly reminded that messiness is good, a condition not to be avoided as Unsatisfactory but a state to be embraced. In messiness lies the possibility not only of truth but also the essence of the human condition, in particular the human condition as we understand it in schools; kids are messy, and fitting them into the cultures of the things we call schools is messy.

The obsessive neatniks of education, of course, are devoted to a single principle that they believe will allow us to leave no child behind. Systematization and standardization are really all about making school teacher-proof and learning, in some bizarre way, kid-proof. Make all of learning a set of templates and algorithms (dare I extend this metaphor to encompass Common Core Standards? Probably not, but I suspect there are those who would encourage this notion) and Kids Will Learn; their learning will be certified by Scantron. All neat and pretty, as they used to say on Mickey Mouse Club.

Messiness, of course, requires critical thinking, critical analysis. It requires seeing patterns, noticing within the complexities the principles or central facts that push an interpretation to one side or another; it also requires a certain openness to multiple perspectives and unexpected possibilities. Scantron doesn’t take such things into account. Scantron doesn’t do nuance.

Lately our political discourse has given nuance a bad name—as if critical analysis that doesn’t arrive at a binary yes/no answer is somehow suspect. But nuance lives within messiness, is part of the granularity of messiness, the fractal nature of what might be so or might not, given the subtleties of all that we might know or might surmise.

I’d also suggest here that Khan Academy, about which everyone has an opinion, is a great object lesson in messiness. For some, Salman Khan’s little demo lessons are perfect examples of binary, this-is-how-you-do-it, teacher-proof education. I think those who see Khan Academy in this way are probably missing the point. As I see it, Khan’s mini-lessons are also viewable as great examples of a messier approach—try this, stop the video, replay, try again, and again; there may be one approach, but there are a whole lot of ways of breaking it down. At least, that’s how it has worked for me, a kind of messiness that yields an algorithm, maybe, but also yields understanding based on multiple ways of looking at the problem. But as so often happens, I digress.

Last week I spent five working days immersed in studio learning, or design thinking, at NuVu. There it is all about messiness, in all of its dimensions: not just mucking around in the complexity of challenging problems and challenging ideas, but literally getting your hands dirty, playing with multiple approaches while using multiple tools and materials—some downright smelly and sticky. My teachers at Southside would have been appalled, I have been thinking, but then I remember the art room and Mrs. Jost. Hers was explicitly the “creativity” classroom, and, at least while we were in there working on whatever we were working on, it was messy. And it was good. I made a mess at NuVu, and I surely didn’t arrive at the One Right Answer—there wasn’t one—and I felt the joy I remembered from Southside.

I wish that Mrs. Jost and Mrs. Boldt and my other wonderful teachers at Southside could have seen us at NuVu. I like to think that they would have understood, that they would have known that the messiness we created and of which the NuVu leaders spoke so lovingly was exactly what they hoped for in the lives of their students. In 1959 they may have convinced themselves that neatness counted, but, like all great teachers who care deeply about the growth of their students, they knew—I’d bet on it—that there is a place for messiness.
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