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Posts Tagged ‘messy

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Hank Green described how one group of students were directed to make a “perfect pot” out of clay while another group was told to make as many as possible.

Spoiler: The perfect group could not find or make their pot while other group was messy but made many good pots.

If I were to show this video to a group of teachers and educators, I am certain to get many different responses. I have my own: The first process is one modelled on the expert teaching model, while the second reflects the messiness of learning.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

One issue that came up in this Twitter exchange was the difference in teachers being lesson planners and learning designers.

This is my perspective: The two are not separate or dichotomous. They are related and stem from overlapping behaviours. For example, both require deep pedagogical-content knowledge and empathy for learners.

However, there are nuanced differences between the two. I offer just three mindset factors that distinguish designers of learning from conventional instructors.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

I have long put forward that teaching is neat while learning is messy. A good educator recognises that learners do not have the same content structure and experiences as she does.

Someone with structure and experience has already been through one or more journeys. They can look back and try to guide others through. However, that guiding is not the same as the learning journey.

A learning journey is messy because it is full of trial and error.

Meddling and tinkering
Whereas teaching is structured and logical with the benefit of hindsight, learning is exploring the unknown. The best way to move forward is to take cognitive risks by trying.

Some might call this process tinkering. We are programmed to do this from the moment we are born. Soon after, adults try to reduce such risks — and such a natural way of learning — in the name of efficiency or safety.

When these adults are teachers, they deliver in chunks. This is not wrong, but it is also not congruent with how newbies learn. If teachers are to be designers of learning, they need to learn how to be the meddler-in-the-middle.

Being a lead learner
One key strategy to be a meddler-in-the-middle to the learn constantly. This way you know what it feels like to be uncertain, to struggle, and to empathise with learners.

Some call this being a lead learner. This is an apt moniker because the designer and facilitator of learning is just slightly ahead and around the learners. She is there relating to the struggle and struggling along with them.

This does not mean that a lead learner is uncertain or poorly skilled. Quite the opposite. A lead learner models thinking skills and problem-solving. A lead learner thinks out loud. A lead learner teaches reflexively and reflectively.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see. — Alexandra K. Trenfor

The takeaway from my descriptions should not be that these are prescriptions. I have just described mindset change. This is something that is shaped from teacher preparation to professional development and from policy making to systemic change management.

In this 2013 TED talk, this teacher shared three ways to initiate meaningful learning and to stop pseudo teaching.

Video source

Number one: Let curiosity drive learning. Not curricular demands, not technology, not even flipping.

Number two: Embrace the messy processes of learning.

Number three: Practice intense reflection.

Those were the Cliff notes. Watch the video to fill in the blanks. More importantly, listen to his stories that explain why he believes in these three ways.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

That was my simple contribution during chats I had with a few people at an event recently. The event was organized for people who believe that e-learning is videos of them lecturing.

Teaching can (and often should) be organized and methodical. But it is still just delivery. You can deliver but that does not mean that it goes to the right person, at the right time, or in the right place. A group of people gathered at one time and in one place does not mean they are ready to learn.

Instructors brought up on the diet of lectures often forget what it is like to learn when they were younger. They almost certainly do not know what it is like to learn in the age of social media, Wikipedia, and YouTube.

messy apartment by ryochiji, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  ryochiji 


It is very messy.

You can try bringing some order to the messiness. Most will try to bring the order in at the beginning by delivering rules, boundaries, curricula, and content. But that only creates barriers that can stifle learning.

You need to be immersed in the messiness as a co-learner. That way you relate to what learners experience when they are new to something. They need to struggle with problems, experiences, and content. Each learner will find something that works.

A good instructor will manage the messiness by facilitating multiple journeys to more or less the same place. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It is difficult if the learner does not want to be there because s/he is not ready to learn. It is easier if you remove barriers to learning and leverage on the self-motivation that results from freedom.

A good instructor also creates confidence in learners. Learners must be able to look up from the messiness from time to time and know that their instructor is there to advise, guide, and even admonish.

A good instructor creates opportunities for consolidation by requiring learners to reflect. On a journey, this is similar to taking stock of the journey, knowing where you are, and anticipating what lies ahead. This is where neatness is necessary and timely.

I say this as a neat freak. I have a place for everything and I like everything in its place. But I embrace messiness in learning because even that has its place.

Two days ago I read a Straits Times article titled work starts on nature walk.

I bring this up because I used to be a biologist and a biology teacher in a previous working life. I also bring this up because I see a problem repeating itself.

Anyone who reads the article and who has lived long enough in Singapore will not be surprised that nature will be tamed and trimmed so that we can walk in it without getting too much of it on us.

In a way this is a good thing because most people do not know how to walk with nature. Instead, they trample all over it like clumsy toddlers in a toy store. So the authorities, being responsible parents, protect the kids from the store and the store from the kids by landscaping and manicuring what they can.

It’s a bad thing because the interventions are incomplete. They are well thought out in terms of planning, logistics, and infrastructure. They protect nature from stupid people with the hope they learn a thing or two. But the reality is that you get heavy cosmetics over badly scarred skin. Why else do visitors still leave litter on these walks and only learn whether something can be eaten or not?

What there isn’t enough of is social engineering in the form of values education. Yes, I know that the Nature Society of Singapore has programmes for this, but these are too few and far between to be part of our cultural consciousness.

We have a natural heritage to pass on. The next generation can either watch this shrinking heritage on YouTube dryly or live it messily. Creating a walk seems like a good compromise because you get a clean and edited simulation of the real thing. But it’s not. You miss the emotions you get when you startle a water monitor or when you discover brilliant colour in the forest gloom or when you figure out how to walk in mangrove mud.

I think that the manicured walks mirror our schooling system. We have a centrally planned curriculum that is relies largely on the model of decontextualized delivery. It is efficient and predictable. But it is so embedded in our culture that most teachers, parents and students know no other way.

Learning is messy and complicated. Our typical response is to clean it up and chunk (dumb) it down. In the process, authentic contexts get removed. Sometimes we realize this is doing our learners more harm than good, but we take half-hearted corrective measures that do not always get at the root of the problem.

For example, when we realized that our students were only exam-smart, we introduced things like project work and community involvement. But both have become formulaic in that you could practically get tuition centres to “teach” these “skills”.

Our approach is remaining reactive rather than being proactive. Look at the retrospective addition of elevators and safety barriers at train stations. At HDB flats, look at the retrospective addition of ramps and lifts that stop on every floor.

MacRitchie to Bukit Timah Briskwalk by inju, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  inju

Returning to the example on nature, I wonder how many people realize that when the Bukit Timah Expressway was built, it cut our primary water catchment and nature reserve into two. This has not only led to the drying out of our forests but also disrupted natural animal highways. Now there are plans to retrospectively link the two halves via a green path. Better late than never? Not when the damage has been done.

It is not possible to foresee everything, but some signs are clearer than others. Our learners no longer get information only from teachers and textbooks. They can connect with information via Internet-connected devices and with people who know who, what, where, when, why and how.

We need to teach them to connect the dots. We need to use the tools that they are already using so that we learn how to learn like them. Then only can we teach them how to use those tools better.

In other words, instead of building an artificial walk, we should walk the talk by being learners ourselves. Then only can we teach in more relevant and natural ways.

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