Do you remember watching Ms. Frizzle on Magic School Bus? If so you can recall her iconic words to every wide-eyed child under her spell: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! But what exactly did she mean by that? And why would she encourage such a thing as messy learning?
With very good reason, actually. Dear Ms. Frizzle knew what she was talking about. When teachers talk about messy learning they are usually talking about something related to project-based learning. PBL puts students in the role of scientists, engineers, creative types, designers, architects—problem solvers, to say the least.
Though the teacher provides specific guidelines and goals, students must engage their higher-order thinking processes to solve those problems. Messy learning is “non-linear” learning while “clean learning” is like “linear” thinking.
Messy learning can be compared to a jumbled-up tangled string which meets itself several times at different angles. When you are forced to look at something at different angles, your perception is strengthened. Each angle reinforces your understanding of it.
Messy learning happens when we play unguided, forced to draw conclusions on our own. It also requires support from the teacher. Structure, templates, guiding questions, scaffolded skills, and the like—but it is in the honouring of the critical thinking process of which teachers need be aware. That’s because you cannot see it sometimes. It is virtually invisible. Like the dark matter of the universe, messy learning can be seen only by its effects upon the things around it.
Messy learning also finds metaphor in the idea of natural selection. The world of ideas hones itself and through a “messy” random selection process, the stronger ideas win out, coming naturally to the body of knowledge as it is today. Even Mark Twain said once, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
Perhaps the biggest proponents of messy learning are schools that know the value of play in a child’s learning. Waldorf has a model for this. Other schools like those featured here on Getting Smart can provide a safe place for messy, sticky learning.
In the 21st Century, when navigating through the Fluencies, it’s important to allow students to own their learning. What better way than through project-based-learning?