Parent Resource

Messy Learning

kids learning is messy.

By Joseph E. Powers, The Woods Academy, Head of School

Learning is messy work. Teaching “learning” is just as messy. I started off our school year with this message, “Embrace the mess.” I recently read a blog post about embracing messy learning at Edutopia, a tremendous educational resource from George Lucas (Yes, the creator of Star Wars. And yes, the new movie comes out in exactly one year. I may declare it a school holiday). I digress.

I read the article and it got me thinking about why learning is so messy. So, bear with me for a paragraph or two regarding my “two cents” on the topic. Learning is messy because there is nothing uniform about learning. Contrary to the way most of us adults were taught, in straight rows with one way to solve a problem and everyone was required to learn material the one way it was taught. While that is a mouthful, it genuinely sums up my experience as a student. The teacher taught material one way and everyone was expected to learn it that way. This is a great way to build a car, not a child.

As I write this post, I am with my math class as they take a test. They are solving division problems using the algorithm that is most comfortable to them. Some will use traditional long division, while others will use the partial quotient method. Add the lattice method in there for multiplication and we have successfully taken us parents out of the equation for “helping” in math. Can any parents solve this problem (100% of the kids in my class prefer this method)?


Learning is messy because it should be. It is messy because our brains are activated in different ways. We record, analyze, code and create (to name a few skills) differently. Therefore we should expect that learning will be different as well. Good luck trying to find a room full of adults or kids who learn everything the same exact way. It doesn’t exist (unless you are on the planet of Kamino and are building clones for the Grand Army of the Republic). Sorry, another Star Wars reference.

Kids and adults will run into walls in the learning process. We will also have plenty of “Ah Ha” moments as well. Not everyone will “get it” at the same time or in the same way, and that is hard to accept. But, it should be expected and embraced. Embracing the mess is what leads to positive growth. My two cents.