In defense of messiness

Children are messy. Their work is messy. Their handwriting is messy. Their thinking is messy.

But their enthusiasm, their joyfulness, their energy is wonderful, and so I am ok with a little messiness if it is produced in a rush of eager creativity.

For instance, I have been reading Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa to one of my Y3 classes, and we finished it this morning. It is utterly charming, and worlds away from anything else we have read recently – the simple language and imaginative story remind me a bit of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, while being totally different in setting and characters!

Anyway, we finished reading it this morning, and everyone enjoyed it, so when I discovered that my other planned activity wouldn’t work I threw in something else I’d been thinking about – writing letters like Giraffe and Penguin! I wrote an example on the board, and invited everyone to write a simple letter, using their own name and giving a clue as to what animal (currently proven to be living on the Earth, so no dinosaurs, Bigfoot or dragons) they were. Letters were hastily written, folded up in a variety of ways, then randomly distributed around the room, to be opened upon the count of three. The most fun part happened next, as students read out the clues and made their guesses, some perfectly accurate and others hilariously off the mark. We ran out of time to read out every single letter, but the boys had so much fun, and so loved the little puzzle and the connection to the book, that I have to say it was one of the best things I’ve done with them this year.

Moments of Discovery

I had some Year 6 students today who were working on a wiki that I asked them to create based on a Tectonic Plate webquest. Mostly they were doing okay with finding basic facts (eg what does a seismologist do?) by themselves, and very keen on finding relevant YouTube videos (they knew that irrelevant videos would not cut the mustard). It was interesting to me to see that my most important role was in prompting them to take the next step in putting together several pieces of information and articulating the new idea that created. For instance:

  • a student found maps showing the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust, the distribution of earthquakes around the world and the active volcanoes around the world. I asked him to look at the dots of the volcanoes and earthquakes and how they followed the lines of the edges of the tectonic plates, and asked him what was the next thought he could say about that? To begin with he could only put the first two ideas together, but with some prompting he was able to say that perhaps the three things were related. It hadn’t occurred to him to put three pieces of pictorial information together that way.
  • a student playing the part of astronomer has found an interesting diagram about Mars’ magnetic field, but couldn’t explain it. He and his partner went back to the website and read through the notes to discover that putting the written information together with the diagram they could visualise and then explain the concept – he was so pleased to be able to see it clearly in his head and say it clearly on his astronomy page!
  • a student looking at biology had found information about the Tasmanian Beech, a native deciduous tree, that was supposed to be significant in supporting the idea of Continental Drift, but when I asked him to explain he merely demonstrated his great skill at reading the copied-and-pasted text. So I asked him what was important about that tree, what was so strange?? This was where environmental factors made it harder for him to get the point – Hobart is full of buildings and parks and gardens built and established in the earliest days of European settlement of Australia so – unlike most of mainland Australia – spring is heralded by flowers and new leaves on bare branches, and autumn is glorious with gold and red leaves heaped in piles under liquid ambers and stone fruit trees. We had a chat about Australian native plants usually being evergreen, how our winters simply aren’t harsh enough or long enough to make hibernation a necessity, and suddenly the lightbulb went on! Why was this native tree deciduous?? A flurry of typing altered his original entry to reflect his new understanding.

This turned out to be such an exciting pair of lessons for me! These groups had had a couple of lessons using their wikis, and had gotten past the initial confusion and messiness of trying a new technology, and were able to concentrate on understanding the purpose of the task. From trouble-shooting the ‘what am I doing?’ and ‘how do I xyz?’ questions we had moved on to constructing personal meaning  – not bad for a total of four lessons!

Reading back over the above examples, I am also struck by the information skills required – one student needed to compare sets of visual data, the next had to put text and visual data together to grasp the concept, and the last needed to take text and visual data and compare it to pre-existing general knowledge in order to make an important discovery! I think that if I take a moment to look over the NETS for students, or 21st Century Learning Skills, I would find that the types of thinking being used by some of my students today are part of a suite of metal tools that many consider will be necessary to equip them for life in a digitised future.

Now if only I could replicate this for every class I teach…