George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Embracing Messy Learning

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Learning is a messy process -- and authentic, project-based learning immerses us in unique parts of this mess. There are days when my check-ins with students reveal that many young people are lost or unclear about how to proceed with the early stages of a project.

"What topic are you going to focus on?" I ask Keith as I kneel down next him.

"I can’t decide. I’m stuck," he mumbles, leaning forward and staring straight into his computer screen as he talks.

On days like this, I look around the room and see multiple students who don't have a clear vision of their process or the final product they are working towards. The room is filled with a mixed swirl of excitement, intrigue, exasperation and frustration. At the end of these class periods, I find myself doubting both my planning and project design. An understanding of process and faith in the value of creating help me to strategize as our work on the project continues.

Understanding the Cycle

I structure projects so that students have choice. This means that many students will struggle to find a topic, angle or approach that works for them. I challenge them to create projects that present something unique and compelling. This means that I expect my students to do hard intellectual and creative work in order to succeed. I tell them that I want projects to be "professional quality" and ready for an outside audience. This means that students will have to revise well past what their teenage patience generally allows.

I am slowly learning to embrace the struggles that students experience as they engage with authentic work. If I don't allow learning to be messy, I eliminate authentic experiences for students as thinkers and creators. I find it important to regularly remind myself that frustration leads to insights and that learning is not necessarily the equivalent of mastery.

Understanding the need for messiness, I attempt to structure class periods accordingly. The beginning of units and the final stages of projects are either times when we work as a unified class, or times when students and groups focus on specific, clearly defined tasks. Our goals are to establish background understanding of a topic or to bring their project-based work to fruition. I plan these days so that everyone has clearly defined tasks to complete.

The early design and drafting days of projects are filled with random ideas, questions, changing minds, and students who feel lost. These days I try to maintain a knowledge of process and understand that students' discomfort is an organic part of learning and creating. I make sure that I am actively engaging with many different students in order to provide regular assistance.

A Project Example: Messiness to Polished Product

Six years ago, I began a partnership with a dance company. Together we designed a project where students would learn to create site-specific dance pieces. In groups, students spent class time at sites where they choreographed their own performance pieces that were then performed for audiences as part of a larger, city-wide arts festival.

This project, which challenges students to perform new tasks that are outside many of their comfort zones, provides a poignant example of messiness that transforms into a polished product. When the dancers and I visit groups at their sites in the early stages of the project, we regularly see young people doubting themselves, the process and the project. A group of five tenth graders can be seen seated in various different areas at their site in an alleyway. One girl is intently focused on her phone, two others are having a private conversation together, and the other group members are staring off into space.

This is the messy stage! Groups do not seem to be accomplishing very much, there seems to be very little engagement or commitment to the project, and groups are not effectively communicating. We provide support by bringing the groups together, asking questions, providing specific structures for developing new ideas, and selectively modeling.

Days later, as performance day nears, we are consistently amazed at the ways that groups have taken ownership of the process, challenging themselves to push their work to higher levels. The same group can be seen from a distance as they physically engage with their site, repeatedly rehearsing, modifying, and adding to the piece they are creating. They work to coordinate the sequencing and timing of their piece, and effectively critique each other with the goal of creating a more polished performance. This transition away from messiness and towards focus and commitment is due in part to the scaffolding that has been built into the project, the approaching deadline, and the public aspect of the performances.

Examples of these final products, created by students with minimal background in dance, can be seen in this student-produced video:

A documentary of the two-week creation process can be seen here:

Struggling in Order to Progress

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass provides us with a poignant historic reminder that, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Struggle is necessary for growth, but facing discomfort is not easy for people of any age. In classrooms where students engage with authentic, rigorous work, strategic support and modeling enable learners to progress past discomfort. As teachers, we must be willing to accept messy days and remind ourselves that struggle and frustration are inherent parts of the process of creation.

Was this useful? (1)

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (10) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (10) Sign in or register to comment

Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)


I love the work you're doing.

Your point about how you'd "eliminate authentic experiences for students as thinkers and creators" if you didn't "allow learning to be messy" is so important.

Last semester, I taught an interdisciplinary course on Thoreau, and I think one of the most valuable experiences for most of my students was learning how to work their way through their confusion and uncertainty (rather than me "solving" it for them).

Your post reminds me of what William James said in the beginning of his lectures on Pragmatism:

"The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it."


Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia


Thank you for your comment and the quote from William James. I love that description: "...multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed."

Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing your experience, Joshua-- and I love the William James quote.

Joshua, do you find that your students generally apply their background understanding (initial research) to their final products? If so, do you require them to make this explicit connection in the final piece?

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for your comment Cindy!

I do think that ideally final products can represent several different stages of the learning process, including initial background understandings. My experience is that students do a good job of articulating the different steps in their process of learning and creation when asked to complete a reflection assignment upon completion of a project. I sometimes make this a separate assignment and other times make it part of the project itself.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

I'm am jumping up and down with enthusiasm (can you see me?) after discovering this incredible post! Good umbrellas, by the way.

We have a song called Messy that has become one of our most popular offerings. We even have a tween video to go with it. I'm sure it's because it agrees with all you are saying here! Digging deep can get messy, but that's more than okay-- it's great!

Laurie Marhsall's picture

Lead Artist/Educator, Create Peace Project,
Thank you for this important conversation. So fun to see the playfulness, cooperation and creativity of the kids outside in a real space. They are totally engaged!

I would like to connect the conversation to the larger context of Nature. Life exists at the border of chaos and order. Too much chaos = war and tornados. Too much order = ice and Nazis. Life is constantly self-organizing, like water to the ocean and kids making art. Life tests small actions in a direction. That's what school projects are for. Life is generative. Like one fig with a thousand seeds and a tree with hundreds of figs, each of us has thousands of ideas. These are all the qualities that you have embraced in your project and that students need. Teaching as if there are answers in a text book does no service to the youth of today. Offering the opportunity to make sense out of chaos is great practice for real life.

Here is an example of harnessing the chaos and self-organizing in the work I do using collaborative art:

Love the William James quote, too, Jennifer

Luke Zimmermann's picture

Thank you for this important post and great discussion!
As a teacher trainer, I noticed many older teachers find it difficult to let go of control as the classroom gets messy. My response: "These are the new sights and sounds of learning. I would be more concerned if my students were all quiet because then I worry they are all day-dreaming about other things." When you give students the freedom to choose topics, processes and activities, they take ownership and student-engagement is guaranteed. What else would you want as a teacher?

EatcherVeggies's picture
middle school ELA and special ed teacher

Joshua - This article is exactly what I was looking for. Very validating and helpful. It is in those early stages, where the messiness occurs, that teachers can lose faith in the process. And I love this dance project!

Fabiana Casella's picture

Dear Joshua:
You can't imagine how your post inspired me today and also lifted my spirit as an educator! I have tried to include all sorts of projects in my EFL classes and I was criticized by some ignorant people at school. This happened last week. I was really disappointed because students had fun and they were engaged 100% of the classes. Noise and mess have never been my "methods", but this time all was positive and students asked me for more classes like that! They learned and enjoyed the activities at the same time: what else can I ask for? Thanks so so much for sharing!! Kind regards from Buenos Aires, Argentina

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

@EatcherVeggies and @Fabiana, thank you so much for your comments. I am honored that you found the post validating and inspiring. I wish you success and courage as you move forward!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.