Messy Learning

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.



Yet might be the most powerful word in the educators arsenal of language. If it is not in your regular vocabulary, it should be. This time of year gets me thinking back on the last 10 months, especially as we have Montessori and 8th grade graduations coming up. So much growth has happened across all grade levels, yet there is always more to learn and more growth to take place. Graduations mark an end and we often associate “ends” with finished products. There is nothing finished about a 6-year-old or a 14-year-old for that matter. They are all works in progress. They may not have achieved at their highest levels, yet, but they will.

Yet is a powerful word because it explicitly implies that there is a belief that the child will get there, even when they may struggle with something. It sends a message that we believe in the child and want to be part of that “arrival.” We can use an example like, “Johnny has not mastered his times tables.” Better said, “Johnny has not mastered his times tables, yet.”

Yet applies to us as adults too. I am a firm believer that I will always be a “learner.” A finished product I am not, and to be honest, I don’t think I ever want to be. I love to share what I have learned with anyone who will listen, yet there is still so much more to learn. There is that word again. Whether it is reading, writing, watching an episode of “Mythbusters” or engaged in a conversation, I know I can and will learn more and something new.

As we get ready to embark upon a time of year to celebrate the “finishing” of school with graduations, let us do so with joy, knowing that so much has been learned and accomplished. Let us also be mindful that we have not accomplished or learned “everything”, yet. Yet gives us hope and a fire to learn more. It also gives our hand to those that need it when words like “can’t” , “won’t” or “isn’t” creep into dialogue. So, celebrate the year and keep the word yet readily available. And, use it liberally.

Winning by Losing

I read a great piece in the New York Times a few weeks back by Ashley Merryman, co-author of the book Nurtureshock with Po Bronson. It was titled, Losing is Good for You. It was a well timed read after having recently been part of two very charged little league softball and baseball games.

One game featured a win-at-all-cost softball coach (not ours) who taught his girls to run on every dropped, overthrown or underthrown ball. The philosophy was, “If the ball does not get back to the pitcher, RUN!” In full disclosure, the rules state this is allowable. Also in full disclosure, I have never seen a team actually develop a base running philosophy around this. These are 4th and 5th grade girls who are still learning the game. Shouldn’t that be the focus. Our girls handled it well. Us dad’s were less than awed by this approach. Winning at any cost is not the spirit of little league. Winning or losing without learning has little to no value (The dad in me was excited that our girls won the game, despite the efforts of the opposing coach. Does that make me a bad person? Please don’t answer that).

On a recent Sunday, our 3rd grade boys baseball team was in a battle of a game with another team. Our team had not lost a game in almost two years. While this is nice and the boys love that, many of our parents were secretly looking for a loss so the boys would have to learn to deal with that. As the coach of the team I could not agree more. There are great lessons in learning from a loss. To quote the great Herm Edwards, “We play to win the game”, but some humble pie is good for you, especially in 3rd grade.

We were losing and you could see the mood on the bench was one of sadness. The boys had not lost a game yet and it was very close to happening. My son was sulking on the bench in between innings. “Why the long face, buddy?” I asked. “We are losing'” was the response. That set me off. While I cannot remember my exact words, I did say something to the effect that “I don’t care if we lose buddy…they are playing better than us right now. They deserve to win. If we want to win we have to play better than the other team.” I am still not sure if I said the right thing or not but I know the everyone-gets-a-trophy perspective plays a big part of that mindset in kids (mine included). Teaching kids to give their best effort and accept the results is easier said than done.

Well, the final inning came and we lost our first game in two years. There were tears as we ended the season, but a great season it was. I was proud of the group for their growth this year. The loss, however, is not a loss. There is more learning in a loss than a win.That is the silver lining in this. That is a growth mindset.

Two games on a Sunday. Two sets of circumstances. One great lesson, with two subtopics. Learning is winning! Win at all costs does have a cost (and not a good one in my opinion). Losing will happen, but it teaches you more than winning. “Dad, if we made a few more plays yesterday we might have been able to win.” That was music to my ears.