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“There is something about going away and then coming back.”

“There is something about going away and then coming back.”


This post was inspired by a conversation on Twitter initiated by Dave Quinn and responded to by “DesignMakeTeach” about the value of taking time away from a project and then coming back to it:

Along the way Gary Stager added:

Coming back to learning after a period of time is a vital, powerful piece that is under emphasized, overlooked or time constrained out. I bet if you think back to some of your own experiences in life, you just might remember a time you were away from a project, problem or writing piece and upon coming back with “fresh eyes” made improvements, solved problems, perhaps started over or made any of an array other “edits” of the previous work.

Frustration, loss of motivation and vision, lack of processing time, tiredness and more, all stand in the way of our best products and learning. Having time away, at least overnight, diminishes, if not even overcomes many of those issues. The value of sticking with a project/problem over days and weeks (sometimes months), where many redesigns and iterations can be cycled through in a collaborative, communicative environment is best. Yes, that is hard to fit into our full plates, but students would benefit from learning this way at least several times a year.

Thankfully I’ve had experiences that led me to search out and emphasize sticking with and coming back to a project over time. Today I note many educators don’t value this messy learning approach. They haven’t experienced it firsthand so they haven’t developed an understanding or appreciation for it. Many schools make scheduling time for doing projects and messy learning pretty much impossible and educators assume (and unfortunately are too often right) that they don’t have “permission.” My last 2 years in the classroom I had to sneak projects into my days. I literally would keep my ears open to when our administrators wouldn’t be around and messy learning could happen (when they’d attend meetings or conferences for whole days was gold).

For some having a “Messy” room over a period of time with piles of materials, paint, glue and other spills … general messiness, along with using “sacrosanct” time usually required for language, math and remediation blocks is just not conceivable given their mandates. To me this is educational malpractice. Messy learning is just as or more important as your language arts or math program.

There’s lots of talk about allowing kids to fail, and I generally agree, but we also have to realize the importance of allowing students to persevere and succeed. Students that are less successful with, “research-based programs” and other forms of traditional schooling, often connect and shine and find avenues to learning, sometimes for the first or almost the first time in their lives when given access to messy learning.

When observing and mentoring in classrooms these days (I’m currently a teacher on special assignment) I see mostly projects that are either not really projects or projects that are recipes shoehorned into a specific time period that disregards time to progress through a design process. Often if some groups even get an initial prototype maybe “mostly finished”- time for evaluation, and even one redesign, much less multiple times, are left behind along with most of the learning. And it isn’t just the “making” learning that is lost, but the invaluable real connections / integrations to language, math, the arts, social studies and other curriculums.

Projects that take time also build the collaboration skills we keep hearing are important. Early each school year my students would role play how to deal with each other’s off track, “uncollaborative,” behaviors, and over time they found out how productive being collaborative and supportive are. Its amazing how time flies and the classroom is a happier place to be then. Visitors pick up on that vibe too.

I would add that having students take a project every once in a while to a “polished” conclusion is important. Attitudes about, “its about the process not the product,” are fine to a point, but that struggle to make a final product that works consistently, is stable and perhaps is beautiful is a worthwhile piece as well (not just held together by tape and string and good wishes – although that’s good too).

Learning is messy!





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