On Messiness & Tidiness, Learning & Teaching

2 Oct

The Resources

Vohs, Kathleen.  “It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity.”  New York Times.  15 September 2013: SR12.  Available here.

Vohs, Kathleen, Redden, Joseph, and Rahinel, Ryan, “Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity.” Psychological Science 24.9 (2013): 1860-1867.  Accessed on 2 October 2013 at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/24/9/1860.  PDF available here

The Responding

In their work researching impacts of order and disorder, University of Minnesota faculty Kathleen Vohs, Joe Redden and Ryan Rahinel report that “Order and disorder might be functional, particularly insofar as they could activate different psychological states and benefit different kinds of outcomes” [emphasis added].

In short, researchers hypothesized that messiness – like tidiness – might have its virtues as well.  Working in an tidy room might help researchers to map potentials for a mixed methods analysis and to compose a sharply edited abstract.  Working in a messy room might be similarly provoke a sustained sequence of generative writing across a word document, a set of post its, a folder stashing related articles and a white board mapping out ways the pieces fit to make an argument.


Via a Summer 2013 Psychological Science article, the three researchers share findings based on several laboratory experiments – conducted as part of a larger examination of the effects of office environments on employees’ preferences, choices, and behavior; they report that work conducted in messy spaces might produce its own set of virtues.  Creativity.  Willingness to take risk.  Valuing of novel ideas.  Taken together, then:

Order and disorder might be functional, particularly insofar as they could activate different psychological states and benefit different kinds of outcomes.

Our point of departure from prior work was to reason that order and disorder are common states of the environment that activate different mindsets, which in turn might benefit different outcomes.

As the researchers note, personal and cultural dispositions – feelings and inferences about order/disorder – infuse our lives.  Order can be marked as a valuing,or expressing a preference for tradition and convention, for orderly patterns of morality and correctness.  Disorder can be noted as valuing ambiguity and freedom, for variation, deviations and boundary – even taboo – breaking.

So, what if we – drawing on the findings from these experiments – see both order and disorder as functional – “particularly insofar as they could activate different psychological states and benefit different kinds of outcomes”? What if we look closely at the messy and tidy characteristics of our personal work spaces as well as the spaces we inhabit as teachers?

How might we tailor our own particular teaching environments – the spaces where we plan for courses and respond to student work, as well as the spaces where we meet with students for the shared formal time of class session meetings – for the behaviors we want to encourage?

How might we navigate with our students the ways of turning on the neat organized self who can determine when and which to norm-following behaviors to stick to in the course of learning? when and which risk-taking behaviors to freely up for the generative work of meaning-making and knowledge production?  How do we signal to students which learnings selves to turn on and when to oscillate among the practices of those multiple learning selves we can be at once?

These are the two teaching moments I’m looking at in new ways now that I’ve worked through this research team’s recent publications:

1.  Whether – and in what ways – my slides, white board notes and/or speaking patterns create an environment – perhaps one that’s at odds with my teaching space and/or my intended learning aim for that session.

I sit at a tidy work table when I’m designing a slideset and session plan for a given class meeting.  I move to a familiar messy desktop – the physical and the virtual one – to develop the slides and session plan, but finalize them again at the tidy work table.  I am quite clear that I need both messy and tidy work- and mind-spaces as a thinker, writer, planner and teacher.

What I’m not so clear about as I step back from this body of research and my own practices is whether and what my slides, board notes and speaking patterns convey, and whether that has impacts on learners – perhaps different impacts when we’re in a regular bricks and mortar classroom, in a technology enhanced classroom with its round tables and multiple technology possibilities, or in an online space with its particular mix of tidy and messy spaces encompassing the learner and learning moments.

Given that I attend to what makes for a learning presentation – one that presents and provokes learning, I am drawn to thinking about whether my well-crafted slidesets for interactive presentations might be too tidy to convey the messiness of the analysis I hope to convey and the thinking I aim to provoke.  And to thinking it right to stay with those quickly scrawled whiteboard notes setting out group tasks as exactly the right thing for activities calling on the messiness of invention and breaking out of group thinking.

The research leaves me wondering how I do use and can continue to bend classroom environments to provoke robust learning, which will regularly be messy and will necessarily take tidy shape.

2.  How might I help students discern and develop both the messy self and the tidy self in their learning lives?

I have carried this question for a very long time for I am both the messy student addressed in this end-of-the-paper comment from 30 years ago –

Your summary and response are so perceptively handled in this paper that I want to rate it an A.  But the paper is so seriously flawed by mechanical errors – a dozen misspellings or typos, for instance – that it is impossible.  I genuinely regret that because your comments reflect some sophisticated thinking.

– and the teacher who helps students learn the tidy editor mindset that will allow their readers – including but not primarily me – to engaged ideas and insights rather than to stumble repeatedly over surface feature errors or on rough semantic constructions.

7043531491_ba629cfb75My impulse is not unlike that of my journalism instructor whose professional work had included being the Christian Science Monitor‘s copy editor.  I want to stop reading a paper after five or so stumbles.  I see now how my practice is different in that it expects – and normalizes – both the tidy and messy parts of composing any sort of a formal presentation of learning.  We fill the board, shared electronic documents and classroom work surfaces with generative writing prompts and excerpts and peer responses when it’s time for creative and divergent thinking to further learning in general or learning related to a particular project.  We clear the surfaces and quiet the conversation when it’s time for reading through a draft to respond to a writer’s questions and to offer our own couple of questions for following up.

It was one of my undergraduate peers working at the college newspaper I edited who coached me in learning the proofreading as the closing step in a process of writing, revising and finalizing before submitting any assignment. By first removing me from our busy newspaper office to do the work of proofreading, he taught me to read my work backwards (first word-by-word, then sentence by sentence) with a pencil in hand over a cup of coffee in the student union three hours before a paper was due.  A tidy remedy overall for wrapping up a messy creative enterprise.

The Vohs, Redden and Rahinel research has reminded me that I need to hold the expectation that learning will be messy and tidy, and then to openly move among those places in class sessions as well as to coach students in the ways that they can build and navigate both of those behaviors in their learning lives.

A Closing Resource


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