Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Messy Learning and Public Education

I love the title of Brian Crosby’s blog: Learning is Messy. It certainly is. Particularly authentic learning. Fake learning, like the kind legislators and administrators congratulate themselves about after test scores are published in newspapers, appears organized, sequential, and predictable. Fake learning is all about trying to control learners or learning. Real learning is likely not completely out of control, but may be on the border of control. Messy learning involves students taking initiative and working in an environment where unexpected, constructive learning events can happen– in fact, they are encouraged. Authentic, messy learning recognizes that real learning is the product of dynamical, even chaotic interactions, rather than false perceptions and constructions of linearity and predictability. When all the kids are silent, they are neatly lined up in their desks, no one is asking questions or whispering, learning is going on… but it is most likely not the sort of authentic, messy learning we should want in our classrooms and schools.

Brian teaches 6th grade, and wrote the following about how important EXPERIENCES are in shaping learning environments and encouraging young people to cultivate spirits of inquiry:

…every single time I have these same students go on a field trip and/or integrate technology and engage in gathering and thinking about and processing and presenting information in science or art or whatever, they start asking questions. Questions like: What does this mean? How do you do this? How can I find out more? Can you explain this to us? AND, “Hey we just learned that…”… and “Did you know that…?”… and “Look at this!!!” and “Can we go here? And students are mostly excited and motivated and willing to do more and learn more. I bet if we take them there maybe they will make the push we are looking for to change how we do school. Or at least help drive that change.

It will be statewide testing time here in the great state of Texas soon. Too bad that messy, authentic learning like the kind Brian describes in his post will be suspended (as it is for many other parts of the year, unfortunately, that are dedicated to didactic test-prep) during these times. I heard today about a fantastic distance learning author visit that had to be cancelled, because a school district has literally outlawed all field trips and other such frivolity (read: authentic, messy learning opportunities) through a formally written policy during the week prior to the statewide tests.

It’s enough to make me want to homeschool my own children in defiance of such idiocy. But we will struggle on in the public schools, because this is where our fight for the educational futures of not only our children, but our very nation must be waged. While our family could fairly easily home-school, there are socialization and activity benefits that I don’t want my children to miss in public school– and there are some GREAT teachers under whom I want them to study and with whom I want them to learn! I have an abiding faith in as well as loyalty in public schools and public school teachers that seems to come from the core of my educational soul. So many children and families DO NOT have viable options to homeschool or attend private school: public school is all they have. So we must remain committed to the goal and engaged in the enterprise of constructively reforming our educational systems.

Thank goodness my oldest is just in 2nd grade, the grade before mandatory testing in our great state. If we remain in Texas for 3rd grade, could we conscientiously object to mandated testing? Homeschoolers have remarkable autonomy in Texas, and are not required to take any TAKS exams. Could we announce homeschooling status the week prior to the test, and then unfathomably re-enroll after testing is over? Could I file suit in the courts (as if we have money for that) and sue the state for not authentically assessing the knowledge and skills of my child? Could I sue the state because my child’s educational present has been sacrificed on a legislative altar of high-stakes testing, where the most visible casualties are messy learning, a focus on the arts, and recess in grades where testing is required?

I could do these things, but I would likely be a 21st century Don Quixote valiantly but foolishly charging to joust the windmill of early 21st century public education.

This must be a group effort, solo acts will not prevail. We not only need to fight for recess, we need to fight for sanity– for messy learning, for authentic education, for the classrooms and schools in which our children desperately want to learn and in which our passionate, creative teachers desperately want to teach.

It’s time to step up to the plate: Speak out, take action, and get mad. We live in a free country, praise God. Let’s exercise some free speech rights.

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9 responses to “Messy Learning and Public Education”

  1. Rob Kennedy Avatar

    Passing tests is a reality in everyday life, isn’t? I have pieces of paper which prove that at one point of another that I was considered competent as an organist and choirmaster, a real estate broker and a Microsoft Certified Professional. I took and passed PSAT and SAT exams. I sat and passed end of year examinations at McGill four years in a row until I got a diploma which said I was competent in what I am not sure. (In those days there were no credits, only exams and tests.) I have a North Carolina driver’s license which permits me to drive my car.

    My point? Testing competencies is an accepted fact of modern life. I submit that we, as educators, parents and taxpayers, must insist that our curricula focus on creating young adults who can assimilate information rapidly and can analyze that same information critically. The only way in which I know we can accomplish that objective is by stretching young minds by exposing them to a wide variety of ideas. Then we need to show them how to make sense of it all and how to apply it in their daily lives.

    Am I nuts? Am I making sense?


  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar


    Thanks for your comments. I am definitely not advocating an end to assessment. What I do advocate for is a focus that is more authentic and comprehensive than the one encouraged by the present system of high-stakes accountability. We have tunnel vision on SUMMATIVE assessment. Yet any teacher knows that formative and ongoing assessment are essential for learning, not just summative assessment.

    I agree with you that we need to “focus on creating young adults who can assimilate information rapidly and can analyze that same information critically.” The world is full of ill-structured problems, and we need to help equip kids with the skills to thrive in that environment. High-stakes testing that is based primarily on single answer, multiple choice problems does not do this. It encourages teachers (and administrators who evaluate them) to focus on worksheets, test question strategies, and a narrow curriculum rather than encouraging inquiry, STUDENTS asking questions about their own learning, and learning in depth.

    It is no surprise that most of us have difficulty believing this. We are steeped in traditional, transmission-based instruction that focuses on tests, and it seems logical that focusing even harder on testing would naturally be a good thing. I will not deny that in many schools, high stakes accountability has had some positive effects by forcing some teachers to have higher expectations of student performance than they held previously. But in many of those same schools, art and music are no longer taught, or given very short shrift, because they are not tested.

    Much of what matters cannot be measured by multiple choice exams and represented in neat bar charts. I am not advocating an end to assessment. Just an end to the myopic focus on summative assessment that holds our children can best be prepared for their futures in a culture of fear where the purpose of the entire year’s educational activities comes down to just a few days of bubbling on scantrons. That is not what a high quality educational environment should be all about.

  3. […] I love reading Wesley Fryer. A post of his from yesterday has just landed in my bloglines account. The title alone is enough to fizz my mind: Messy Learning and Public Education. […]

  4. Michael Kelley Avatar
    Michael Kelley

    We humans are veritable learning machines with a tremendous capacity for knowledge. We come by this capacity naturally, and it is evidenced ever so clearly in youngsters. But what happens after a couple of years of schooling? Kids develop an aversion for school and that aversion is often linked with learning–not good. Schooling is not educating.

    I’m convinced that the lack of community about which we often lament stems directly from having broken traditional, inter-generational learning links from within the community. Kids are cloistered away in cells where they are fed facts and figures, failing to make real-world connections socially and intellectually.

    Since when is a score on a standardized test an accurate reflection of what a person truly knows? Sure, we can use the results to label, stratify, and select, but what are we really measuring when so much of what’s behind the score gets forgotten in a short period of time? Such mechanisms certainly have their place, but please don’t mistake it for anything close to a comprehensive assessment of what I can do! I agree with Wesley, assessment is important, but let’s assess what really matters: that which elevates us socially, intellectually, morally, and ethically!

  5. Brian Crosby Avatar

    Rob (above) – Does the kind of testing we are doing point teachers and schools to “focus on creating young adults who can assimilate information rapidly and can analyze that same information critically”? Or on test taking skills and an overly focused curriculum? How many students go to high schools that are not pretty much all about college prep when not all of them are going to college – probably not half of them? And the jobs they will get probably won’t have them taking tests to qualify? Don’t get me wrong I think a certain amount of evaluation is critical – but most of the testing being done under NCLB is not the kind of testing that leads to changing instruction In a constructive way.

    At my school, and many, many others, science and social studies and art and PE and even recess have been all but completely dropped from the curriculum in the name of test scores. How do students that are behind primarily because of lack of understanding of the world around them learn about that world from a curriculum that is devoid of experiences about the real world? Over two-thirds of the parents of the students in my class never graduated elementary school – about half never got past 4th grade. Not one of my 31 sixth graders yesterday knew that there are craters on the Moon – much less what caused them, or that we have landed on the Moon, or that there are people called astronauts that travel into space (actually 3 or 4 of them knew that).

    Except that I have access to about 27 six –year-old iBook laptops, 26 of my students had never really done any research on the internet until this year – or used tech as a tool in any other way because “that’s an add-on to the curriculum we don’t have time for,” – and the chances of them working much on tech in school during middle school beyond a basic computer class are slim to none – and only 4 have a computer at home. Project based work – give me a break – that “takes too long and is harder to grade.” But little to none of those skills or knowledge is on the tests they have to pass to graduate high school – but lots of things they will probably never use are.

  6. […] Kids are natural learners, and it isn’t a big deal to them most of the time. Learning is what kids do. Simple. When I was a kid nobody bothered to keep tabs on what I was learning, and I had a lot of chances to set up little educational projects of my own. Some of my projects were ragged constructions and others were impromptu experiments. I never thought of this as learning, but in retrospect I see that’s what my projects were about. It’s a good thing nobody tested me on them because most of what I learned had little educational currency. I’m glad I had the chance to ask my own questions before adults came up with tests for fake knowledge and forced kids to only learn what could be filled into a blank space on paper. […]

  7. Graham Wegner Avatar

    Wesley, I don’t have anything insightful to add but it is interesting that here in Souh Australia parents can request that their child be exempt from the standardised testing in Years 3, 5 and 7. These are known as LaN tests (Literacy and Numeracy) and students cannot be compelled to sit them if parents request that their child not do them. We are also currently fighting a battle with the Federal Government imposing a “plain English” report card across the nation which allocates all students with grades A – E. Again, parents can request that their child is exempt from this measurement system – an option that I will exercise on both accounts in my capacity as a parent for our eldest son who is in Year 1. I worry about the “we have tests in real life to get qualifications so kids need to learn to deal with that” mentality. Is our business learning or test-passing?

  8. Weekly Roundup (2 April 2006)

    It’s the end of the week and the end of the Spring term for some UK teachers (not me!). Time to relax and look at some issues that have been floating around the news and education-related blogs in the past seven days, including using computer gam…

  9. […] Wesley Fryer raises some interesting questions in his post Messy Learning and Public Education. I planned on writing in response to his article, but for once, I can’t seem to find much to say… […]