Learning is Messy *if you’re doing it right

22 08 2011

I had a colleague who once shared a nugget of truth with my class and me: “If ya ain’t got it on ya, then ya ain’t got it in ya.” While she was referring specifically to art, I do believe that the sentiment is true for just about any type of learning.


A state of optimal ambiguity allows learners to begin taking control of their own process.

When I went through the Teacher’s College at Emporia State University so many years ago, my professors did a very thorough job of impressing upon me the need to have all the students learning the same thing at the same time. The analogy I remember quite clearly from Dr. Samuelson was taking a tour through a house, where we all had to go in the front door together, take a look at each room together, then leave out the back door together, and woe be to the educator who let a kid wander or get lost.

While there are times when this is an appropriate approach, I’m not sure it’s a realistic model in today’s world. In recent years, I have set aside many things I was taught to do in my Teacher’s College education classes, in favor of trying to structure the learning environment to be driven by what my students will need in their future lives. I became less content-driven, less-teacher focused in my approach and more skills-driven, more student-centered.

I figured I could have the kids come to me (or their parents or their other teachers) to pick up their daily allotment of fish every single day of their lives, or I could teach them how to fish.

In doing so, it became clear to me that students needed to experience what I then called, “the vague-haziness” of the world. Rarely do we get tour guides for life. Often we have to be able to problem-solve our own tours of that Teacher’s College house. In my work with kids, I began giving vague, hazy instructions and supporting them to problem-solve solutions. It was ok to have different strategies than your peers. In our creativity work, it was encouraged to have different results and methods.

Sure some students balked, preferring when I just gave them a fish, rather than having to work and learn. Sometimes I was too vague in my instructions. I found it took a balance of knowing your students and understanding the potential of your students. Most students embraced the freedom and the responsibility I was giving them. They were experiencing LifePractice.

And so it went. In our daily learning environment, students were provided tools to learn,  tools to demonstrate their learning, and the freedom to use those tools as they saw fit. The overall expectations were clear, but the directions on how to get there were vague and hazy, or as I learned from Alan November, “optimally ambiguous.” On purpose.

I found out a couple of years after we’d been running the LifePractice Model that Alan November was calling this vague-haziness, “optimal ambiguity,” and I latched on to that wordsmithed phrase with my life. I was creating an environment of optimal ambiguity which was allowing my students permission to problem-solve. To think individually or as a group. To need to brainstorm solutions. To prioritize tasks. To set steps to meet timelines and deadlines. To be able to best show how they, as individuals, had accomplished the learning goals.

In short, my students and I (and the very, very nervous parents) had developed the LifePractice Model.

We were guided by the tested standards, sure, but the regurgitation of facts was not the end goal. The end goal was to develop learners. People who would be able to function both academically and socially without having to have someone tell them what to, when to, how to. That they had brains in their heads and they were expected to use them for the Greater Good: “What do I need as an individual? What do we need as a group? What does the school need as a community? Where do my actions fit into this schema?”

They were asked to look for their own strengths and to recognize the strengths of others and learn how to maximize those strengths. This served to help them individually with self-esteem, but it also served to help them build up one another instead of tear each other down, as I see as an innate foundation in so many other academic (schooly-school) systems; those are focused on where kids need help, where the individual is weak, where they need to strengthen their skills and knowledge. This only serves to get kids to hide their weaknesses, not address them.  To focus on strengths helps build self-esteem and allows a learner’s mind to be opened to suggestions and work for growth in non-strength areas.

Compare this with banging on their heads all day with the messages, “this is where you’re weak, this is what you got wrong, this is what you need to do, this is where your performance is poor.”

The LifePractice Model asks learners of all ages in the community to work hard and to respect the work of others. It is not prescriptive. It is not a “one-approach works for everyone” model.  LifePractice is simply that: practicing real life skills in an environment that mimics the real world in as many ways as is practical.

It is 100% individual, run in a group-based model, just like life. Like family.

Each teacher focuses on each child and what their strengths and needs are. It requires us to know the children, fully and completely. Sure, we have to sometimes have tough conversations. We have to look at discipline on an individual basis and not rely on a “one-size-fits-all” approach because it simply doesn’t. We have to get close to kids. We sometimes have to get snot on us.

Because if you ain’t got it on you, you ain’t got it in you. 

Learning is messy, if you’re doing it right.

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