October 14th, 2013

The Messy and Unpredictable Classroom


How do we make learning messy and unpredictable for our students—and why? I posed this question to the members of the Teaching Professor group on LinkedIn in July, and a lively and insightful discussion immediately began. This article is based upon the insights shared in the discussion.

The phrase messy and unpredictable (particularly the word messy) proved to be quite provocative. To be sure, the wording of the question incited almost as much discussion as did the concept it articulates. The idea of an unprepared and disorganized instructor with no clear learning outcomes was a common misinterpretation. However, my use of messy and unpredictable refers to the learning experiences we offer our students and to the ways that we frame and offer those experiences.

First, messy suggests a classroom environment that motivates students to dig, to question, to take risks, to fail (and learn something from that failure that they may not have otherwise learned)—in short, to discover. Unpredictable seems to be a natural semantic companion to messy and further suggests discovery but also promotes adaptability. Together, these words articulate an idea of teaching and learning that renders the classroom experience an archaeological dig, so to speak, that puts the tools in the hands of the students. I embraced the misinterpretation of the phrasing, however, because the resulting comments served to exemplify a desired effect of the messy and unpredictable classroom: diverse interpretations discussed, negotiated, and reconciled. Isn’t this the kind of dynamic learning environment we should strive to create?

Discussion participant Jason Myrowitz effectively clarified my intended meaning for messy and unpredictable by rephrasing it as “strategic ambiguity.” This useful rephrasing not only conveys my intended meaning but also reveals the instructor and student positions in such a teaching landscape. It reveals the need for professors to be strategic and organized in their planning and offering of effective learning experiences, while creating situations that require critical and creative thinking and problem-solving. Those with a more spiritual approach to teaching may want to think of it as, what discussion participant Rex Veeder termed, “hectic zen.”

What follows are insights from a few of the discussion participants (quoted here with permission):

Why Should Learning Be Messy?
“I make the work messy because the world of work is messy (I teach in a job retraining program for adults). Bosses want you to solve your own problems. They do not give clear directions or rubrics for the finished product. Students need the critical thinking, problem solving, and Internet searching skills to find solutions to the real time messy moments of work.” (Bradley Gangnon, Takoda Institute at American Indian OIC)

“However passionately, smartly, perfectly, crystal-clearly we teach, there is messiness in the student’s mind in absorbing the ideas. We must adopt strange, sometimes a-student-specific approach to score a ‘hit’ with the ideas.” (Subramanian R., Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning)

“Many respondents commented that intentionally introducing messiness increases the external validity of what students are learning in the course. I agree. There is another, perhaps equally important, reason for intentionally introducing some ambiguity and all the difficulties that attend it into our classrooms: these difficulties may actually increase students’ learning and retention of the material. There is a robust literature in cognitive psychology to support the notion that memory is the residue of thinking. Ambiguity, messiness, and disconfirmed expectations are all things that can get students thinking.” (David Porter, Berea College)

“I teach rhetoric, composition, and medical humanities. In all cases I find that making a mess and doing something unexpected or strange is necessary for progress with interpretation, problem solving, and real explorations of issues real for the students. . . . In the end, what appears to be messy is actually a process of engaging at a real and significant level for students and teachers alike.” (Rex Veeder, St. Cloud State University)

How Can We Make Learning More Unpredictable?
“I give assignments that allow a great deal of room for interpretation. For example, on a certain assignment, I tell students to come up with a creative way to deliver their information instead of making a PowerPoint presentation. . . . It requires the students to get out of their comfort zone and to realize that they won’t always be able to follow a rubric to arrive at a solution.” (Jason Myrowitz, Northern Arizona University)

“It seems that having just a skeleton of a lesson plan (and make sure the students are aware of this) is one approach. That way the climate of the class dictates the lecture and skill development.” (Conred Maddox, Honolulu Community College.)

Topic “interrogations,” as well as evaluation and synthesis tasks are other ways to get messy and unpredictable in the classroom.

The consensus is that creating ambiguity for students to work through is essential to their development of critical and creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Students may want knowledge presented to them in nicely wrapped packages, and we may feel like we are rightly attending to their needs when we offer this. However, the best gift we can give our students is the ability to question, to discover, and to learn to learn. Presenting students with messiness and unpredictability in a pedagogically-sound way can make that happen. Ultimately, what they (and we) need is “a little rattling of the cage.” (Howard Doughty, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology)

So, how do you get “messy and unpredictable” in your classroom? Please share in the comment box.

Melissa Hudler is the Director of the Quality Enhancement Plan and an instructor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University.

  • Xan Black

    Read the morning newspaper and craft a lesson based upon something going on in the community in real time. Our city is building a huge new park, so I challenged our students to think about what they would put in the park, create a scale map of their park and write a letter of recommendation to the philanthropists and city leaders making the park possible. It was very messy and very unpredictable and I hope and believe very meaningful!

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  • Lisa Conry

    I use case studies in which the answers are not always clear. There is room for diversity in thinking and solving the case study.

  • svenaake

    Did you hear this joke?

    Concerned father: "is it really wise to ask the same exam questions year after year?"
    Headmaster: "Well, you see, we change the answers every year"

    I like formulating assignments rather vaguely, and then reward students coming up with a good, creative interpretation.

  • learninginrealtime

    I bridge the classroom & community with out of classroom activities to allow the students to experiences 'agency' in a first year classroom. The students are hesitant, at first, then they learn to interact with people and come up with solutions and more questions to explore.

  • mcheyer

    Good info! I really like the community project from Xan Black.

    I create projects based on current events too, but they can be local or national. For example, in Business Comm. class we do a 'mock trial', if you will. Students may or may not get to choose which side they are on. We all choose the 'judge'. Students get a class period to do any research and then decide who is the lead 'attorney' or 'attorneys'. Most of the time, this will replace another assignment. While it's tempting – and students have asked – we do not get political. For example, the National Security Agency and stories around privacy issues – one on Google privacy changes will be next.. It is fun – it is messy from a management standpoint – but it's so engaging and helpful for student to be involved with real issues and real problem-solving.

  • Kim

    Well, we often talk about science quests being quick and dirty, so why not a messy and unpredictable classroom? And we scientists make hypotheses that we then expect to disprove, so what's more unpredictable than that?

  • Jo Johansen

    I get unpredictable by challenging the mathematical "rules" the students have internalized.
    For example when discussing division of fractions(rational expressions) I might have a few students
    who remember vaguely that you have to invert the second factor in division.And I say "what if it's raining
    on Monday and I am in a hurry can I invert the first one instead?" This is generally met with puzzled looks.
    Then I explained that if we have 30 people ion a room and want to divide them into two groups then
    30 divided by 2 is one by one division by saying "you go over there and you go over there etc.
    This will eventually get two groups of 15. However if you realize that to divide by two is the same as
    cutting in half then we can speed the process up by 30 divided by 2 becoming 30 time a half.
    Hence the inverting of the SECOND factor is the only choice and if it's raining ion Monday and I am in a huury
    too bad have to invert the second one NEVER the first factor involved.This leads to a discussion of the
    commutative property which investigates the order sensitivity concept.
    Challenging to students to think about the "rules" and 'regulations" they process without thought promotes
    learning the concept rather than a regurgitation of said rule.

  • Prof. Vazquez Jr.

    Messy! a Chapbook with no assigned topic, unpredictable, the end results for the presentations any meaning to why I am in college? or what do I want to do if I had control over my Career, both are very important topics, but both could have a totally diverse interpretation of why? and what?..
    After 25 years of teaching a college 101 type of college success courses, I just discovered that I am a messy and unpredictable instructor, thanks! Creativity is the juice for critical thinking and problem solving! so let it be messy and unpredictable.

  • Suzanne Bechtol

    I love messy! It DOES resemble the real world. I teach paralegals. I frequently give them case scenarios and tell them: "Here is the information you have about this mock case… find out….and report your findings in a memo, a complaint, a letter, etc." I have seen students who actually hate this practice. These are the students I want to inspire the most because I am concerned they feel the real world is a tidy place where everything is predictable. I would like suggestions about how to deal with these students.

    • Melissa Hudler

      Hi Suzanne,

      Thank you for your comments. The counterpart to the students you describe are the ones in my composition classes who want me to tell them how many sentences "are supposed to be" in a paragraph, what they should say in their essays, and the exact meaning of a particular poem. Such students want formulas and indisputable truths. I find it difficult in one semester to change their perspective from this to one that recognizes the benefit of messy and unpredictable learning experiences. Instead, I focus on creating an environment that is supportive of such experiences by requiring students to take risks, explaining the benefits (academic and real-world) of doing such, and encouraging them to share their struggles. When they do this, I first make sure to thank them for sharing. This is important because it sets the supportive tone and communicates an appreciation for their willingness to take risks. Then I emphasize the benefits of their experiences and encourage the other students to offer feedback and advice. This process may not change the students' perspectives, but it at least lets them see that classroom community will be developed around the desired perspective, and usually leads to a reluctant embrace, but an embrace nonetheless, of the assignment or technique. Sometimes people will leave their comfort zones for a sense of support and community.

  • Lazulimu

    I form research firms in my professional research and reporting classes. Though there is structure in the form of rotating team roles (team, leader, researcher, writer, formatter, and minute taker) and team guidelines the firms create as their first team assignment, it is up to them to decide which format for an assigned document works best , which sources have the most relevant perspectives to interview and survey, and what data is most relevant to their topic to include in their final report. I also give out imperfect samples and encourage to find their own through online searches and local businesses. Sometimes I get surprises because of the unpredictable nature of the class, but all-in-all, I think students appreciate the real world messiness.

  • lucyjean07

    This is such a provocative topic! Thank you. I would like to respond from 2 different perspectives, that of mother of a middle-schooler and that of a commmunity college writing instructor. One of the biggest problems with K-12 education seems to be an overuse of the "neat packages" for the "right" answer. Creativity rarely seems emphasized as gathering of assessment data becomes paramount for teacher accountability. As a result, a natural messy thinking process that is a critical part of the learning process is too often circumvented with rote, usually boring memorization and "filling in the blanks."

    • Melissa Hudler

      Thank you for your perspectives. I'm already seeing the negative impact of my daughter's neatly packaged educational experience, and she's only in second grade. I have to spend quite a bit of time reassuring her that puzzling over things and struggling (as much as a second grader would have to) are positive learning experiences.

    • rcharvet

      The public schools promote "non-thinking." As an art teacher, writer, creative…the neat package crap drives me nuts. Natural curiosity has gone by the wayside, graduation and drop out NUMBERS are paramount. Then when a teacher comes along who asks give to THINK, BE CREATIVE, SELF-DIRECTED gets reprimanded because he was teaching students to love to learn, but the NEW ADMIN do not understand because it wasn't STANDARDIZED or put into a box that their finite brains could understand. Oh, yes I often tell my students, "Yeah, they think we simply do crap in here because you actually find joy in what the learning environment brings to you; we have fun learning." My CRAP = Creative Responses After Processing. Thank you for sharing. You all make me feel sane.

  • lucyjean07

    An abundance of these experiences challenges the community college instructor who wishes to embrace the concept of ambiguity, and it can be frustrating for some incoming community college students who may not have come from high-performing districts or had honors level classes. _At the same time, applying writing process theory to "real life" writing situations in various genres, involving community, academic or professional situations makes my subject matter come alive and enter the realm of messy reality. I want to encourage this intellectual "wrestling" with new ideas over time as yes, creativity and problem-solving skills will be strengthened…but only if done with the guidance of a skilled instructor. Have learning outcomes and a plan but don't be afraid to "let go" occasionally to mine the fruits of the process. Relish the art of teaching!

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  • HealthcareEducator

    I prefer to call the process flexible and self-directed. In healthcare we need to be organized but flexible. While it is good to have an organized approach to solve a problem, being rigid, inflexible, or not open to an unusual patient presentation is counterproductive. The students need to develop a variety of skill sets and apply them to a variety of clinical problems. Solving case based problems is one way of doing this as well as early introduction into supervised clinical experiences. Self-reflection papers (what did I learn and how can I use this) are another approach. The learning objectives are stated, but not an exact path to getting there.

    • Melissa Hudler

      Thank you for your contribution to this topic. Your closing sentence, especially, is spot on!

  • Paul M Dobies

    If there is something true about healthcare delivery, it IS messy and unpredictable, especially now. I prepare my students by teaching them in the way they are going to deliver healthcare. They receive all of my disease slides and a comprehensive manual before "class." In "class" I then break them up into Module groups of 4-5 students, clarify the process of decision-making (what we call SOAP Progress Notes), and then require them to work together to formulate patient scenarios in the form of "test" questions. They email them to me during "class" and then we analyze them together to improve them with me functioning as the facilitator who questions and challenges their approaches. This prepares them for the exact type of conversations they will have with their Preceptors once they are in actual patient care.

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  • Jan Bone

    I teach Eng. 102 at both Roosevelt University and Harper College (2 year, community). My comp students are wrapping up an ONLINE groups project in which we have studied Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed – On NOT Getting By in America. Each of 4 groups took ONE place Barbara had worked in 2000 for low or minimum wages (the background for the book), They each have analyzed her mistakes (with group charts, their chosen facilitator and recorder; thought of questions to research AT THE CITY/STATE where she worked for one month; assigned the questions to various group members; this week, have shared charts with specific answers and websites where found; and due 10/'27, have each come up with a Chicago-metro area current organization or community group that helps the low wage, few resources, marginally employed, and are presenting it in a 3 to 4 page PR report, based on interviews with staff and (with signed permissions) clients of that organization and contact info. All this, through internet research and internet postings in a distance learning format.

    AT the community college, taking off on a "Be a Critic" chapter in their comp text, a number of students have written restaurant reviews. In the last week, 8 of the 20 students have had theirs published in the area web pages of Yelp! with review, byline, and their photo.

    I recommend wholeheartedly the New York Times Learning Network (which has free lesson plans in many topics – and fields, and is in print or digital edition usually on Fridays. Student comments on hot topical issues (350- words or so) also get published with first names only, ) Incredibly creative.

    BTW, I am teaching both courses from the house on the internet – and will be 83 in December. I now have Parkinson's, but have just put Dragon 12 on my home computer. (speech recognition software) to make commenting and feedback easier.

    • Melissa Hudler

      Jan, it sounds like you've created a fantastic composition class! I like the real-world relevance it gives the subject/course. And to accomplish this under your circumstances, you're a true inspiration–keep it up!

    • lucyjean07

      Good stuff, Jan! My community college work is at College of DuPage (not far away!). I want to get into online teaching and worry about how to create the supportive, interactive environment that's the cornerstone for the student-centered, student-driven learning I achieve in person.

  • Melissa Hudler

    Thank you all for turning this article into a useful conversation! I appreciate your comments and ideas.

  • Helen Northcott

    It is a pleasure to deal with students who want more information and understanding. When I do not know the answer it is reflective of life and the many things we do not know in the area of science, mental health, physical health and germs. So the student can be challenged to find an answer and make a difference in the world and find personal satisfaction from their pursuit of finding the answer. Then we can honor them like many others who have made an outstanding contribution to science and human needs.

    • Melissa Hudler

      ". . . and find personal satisfaction from their pursuit of finding the answer." I agree with the entire statement, but I want to emphasize this part because it resonates with any discipline (admittedly, my discipline wouldn't directly lead anyone to world-changing work or discoveries). If we could only get more students to value personal satisfaction over grades as an end to their education. . . .

  • Bruce Kanze

    Thank you for bringing up this wonderful idea. The idea that learning can be messy and unpredictable grows out of a vision of what knowledge is. If we look at knowledge as little bits of information that we pass on to our students, then we can keep things tidy. But real knowledge is dynamic and, therefore, unpredictable. When we allow children's ideas to come into the classroom and drive what we do, things should get messy. It's in the messiness that new ideas take shape and are clarified. I taught junior high school and older elementary school for many years. I searched for ways to make my students' ideas the central part of our curriculum. Children need to explore and find things out for themselves. I placed more value on the things students found out and told me and each other than the little bits of information I passed along. Don't get me wrong: Both are important. But Dewey said that it's more important for a child to have something to say than it is for the child to have to say something. We developed projects in the class that students were responsible for initiating and deepening. That way, we could talk about their ideas and the help they needed to get done what they were trying to do. The projects involved inquiry into ideas and generalization and learning skills and content. They also involved planning and cooperating. Now, I work with college students who are going to become teachers. They create their own projects, which enables them to study their own learning. That way, I hope, they will become sensitive to the learning (and the struggles) of their students.