Messy Learning Develops Critical Thinking

4 mins read

Making a mess isn’t necessarily a bad thing anymore, especially with learning. I recollect a teacher saying

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 excellent reason, actually. She knew what she was talking about – it’s how we develop critical thinking.

Critical thinking could be thought as clear, rational, logical, and independent thought process. It’s about improving thinking by analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing how we think. And this can get messy. The question is, so what?

Embracing the Messiness of Critical Thinking

Why does the word “messy” need to have the negative connotation that it does? The answer is simple. Think back to your childhood and how the word “messy” was used in your daily conversations with parents and other authority figures.

Making a mess was usually accompanied by an admonition or warning of some kind. Being messy, in actuality, was equated with being beneath someone else’s standards. The point is, it was bad.

Throw that all away and adopt a new awareness of the power of “messy learning.” Realize right now that it’s a sign that the brain is active with considering possibilities and exploring avenues of knowledge. Messy learning is all about getting hands-on and experiencing the full extent of where exploring a problem can take us.

To truly think critically, we must give ourselves – and especially our learners – permission to do these things. It’s about eschewing all judgement and the need to classify something as either right or wrong. Instead, we deconstruct, analyze, fail, revisit, and pull things apart see we can see how they go back together again.

Go Ahead, Make a Mess

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, and other problem-solvers. 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.

Compare messy learning 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 to be aware. That’s because you cannot see it sometimes. It is virtually invisible. As the dark matter of the universe, messy learning can be seen only by its effects upon the things around it.

Messy learning also finds a metaphor in the idea of natural selection. The world of ideas hones itself, and through a “messy” random selection process, the more robust 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.”

In the 21st Century, when navigating through the fluencies, it’s essential to allow students to own their learning, and do what they want – to build critical thinking capacity. What better way than through messy learning?

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