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In Favor of Messy Classrooms

September 2, 2019

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

In the award-winning novel Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger is counseled by her great uncle Edisto to “Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!” The ever-practical Comfort responds, “I don’t like messes. I like my plans.”

This is understandable; after all, no one likes a mess, and nowhere is this truer than in the classroom. You’d probably prefer to have your students walk calmly down the hall to recess, rather than racing ahead, shouting and dribbling basketballs. And certainly, there are times when order needs to be enforced. But what do you stand to gain by letting life “strut into” your classroom?

Potentially, a great deal. Your students are naturally curious and bring with them the glory of the knowledge they’ve already acquired through that curiosity. Who cares if that glory is a little messy?

Lee Johnson of Andrews University states the commonly held belief that “children are born scientists. They come into the world wanting to find out how things work. They like to ask questions and give answers—that is exactly what scientists try to do.”

He argues that a school’s mission should be to encourage this inquisitiveness, but too often, the opposite is true. “The educational system takes this natural curiosity away and replaces it with a curriculum that tells students what educational officials think the students should know,” he says. “The result is that students quit seeing science as something that is useful and see it as just another subject in school to get a good grade in.” 

If you tell students what to know, they will, by and large, learn it. At least temporarily. Long enough for a test. But will they internalize it? Will they remember it? Will they care about it?

Johnson believes they will not. And no wonder. As humans, we only internalize the things that matter to our lives, and the things that matter to children’s lives are the topics about which they care and wonder.

Why do you suppose I could remember the quote that opened this blog, years after reading the novel in question, without having to look it up? Each Little Bird That Sings was one of my favorite novels as a child, a novel that I read of my own volition because it sounded interesting. Although I read and enjoyed almost every book assigned in my English classes, I was told to read them and didn’t do so out of my own curiosity. I wasn’t reading about a topic for the sole reason that it was interesting to me—and I therefore had no reason to indefinitely internalize the information.

Clearly, the way children naturally learn is by finding something they’re interested in, whether that’s baseball, ballet, or baking, and doing it, watching it, or reading about it. When children are interested—truly interested—the time they will dedicate to a subject or activity is quite inspiring.

What if we allowed the classroom to be that way?

Now, it's worth pointing out that this shouldn’t be taken to extremes. Even in a world without standardized tests and tight schedules, there are skills that students need to master (such as basic mathematical operations) that may not be the most naturally interesting but are still essential for later learning. And it’s not true that kids will just learn everything that is necessary to succeed in our society without being trained and educated. Natural curiosity does have its limits.

But it is true that the setting in which they are educated can be more effective if it is structured to be more like the way in which the kids naturally learn. And that’s the basis of inquiry science, which opens up the textbook to let kids ask questions and conduct experiments about what they care about.

They won’t all care about the same thing. They won’t all care about what the curriculum and standards say they “need” to care about. There will be many “experiments” happening at the same time.

It will be messy.

But if you allow your students’ natural curiosity to lead the way, it will be glorious.

How will you bring “messy glory” into your classroom this fall?