Thinking is Messy

Hils was sitting at a desk as I walked in, rewrapping a scarf around her neck while listening to a student sat beside her.  She asked her a question and the student stood up, and said,

“No, it’s ok, Miss, I get it now.”

We both watched the student leave, then she smiled at me as I stood there awkwardly, wondering if I should introduce myself.  She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of a seat and as I settled she gave me an instructional insight that never left me the whole of my teaching career:

“Don’t ask what shall I teach, but ask, what can I do to help them learn.”

Hils was my teaching mentor for three years after that meeting and I learned a great deal from her.

Then, we worked in what I called a shed, with a broom cupboard as our departmental library.   Our classroom was messy. Books and newspaper cuttings strewn everywhere, our display boards a weird combination of student scribbles, political quotes and controversial questions.

Our aim was to infuse critical thinking into each of our lessons, maximise student engagement with the subject matter outside of lessons and make learning fun.  Our lessons were lively, students didn’t always sit at their desks, and were as democratic as we could be.  Our lessons didn’t have a clear beginning, middle and end.  We didn’t always specify our learning objectives as ‘good’ teachers were meant to do, but we did encourage our students to work it out for themselves.  We didn’t just aim to help them gain good grades, but to think autonomously and be able to cope with the demands of life after school.  I reflected on how they would develop as people in addition to how they developed as learners.  It inspired a PhD project.

In my PhD supervisor I found a sounding board for my growing frustration with the new specifications for our subjects (Psychology, Sociology and Politics).  Testing increased from once at the end of two years to four times within the two years.  Our approach changed because it had to change.  It caused my colleague a great deal of stress and she left the profession after several periods of long-term sickness.

I adapted, but began to feel stress I never had in the first three years of teaching, even during inspections.  Our accommodation changed, the department expanded and teachers joined us who taught us that the most important thing was to get our students good grades.  Management changed and they taught us that the most important thing was to get our students good grades.

Our classrooms became tidy, our lessons had to have a beginning, middle and end, students wrote things down verbatim in tidy boxes in their booklets.  Newspaper clippings were framed and put on the board, and it was the teacher rather than the student who brought them in.  Internal inspections became stressful as we’d be judged on how well we were teaching to the test.  If the students were having fun, they didn’t feel they were learning anything useful.

When I expressed this trend to my supervisor, he replied

“But thinking is messy!”watercolour-banner

He’s absolutely right.  During the process of undertaking the PhD, I gained expertise in implicit and explicit learning, conscious and unconscious cognition.  Thinking is messy.  We try to order it, but that can often be counterproductive.  Sometimes we need to allow our tortoise minds space from our hare brains (for more on this – I recommend a great book by Guy Claxton: Hare Brains, Tortoise Minds).

As I was daydreaming today (tortoise mind practice), I realised I missed teaching, the messy, democratic, vibrant, thoughtful teaching I was introduced to.

Later in my career I was called into the headteacher’s office.  I felt that feeling, of “what have I done wrong?” Yup, even teachers get it too.  He told me that he went to the student common room explicitly to see how much studying was going on, and said that just one student was reading a book.  I’ll call the student Jools.

Jools had had a very colourful history in the school, often in detention and once referred for anger management.  He was quite open about his former problems and  I came to learn that he was most difficult when he was bored.   I used to enjoy his irreverent candour which he freely expressed in psychology and politics.   It was the politics textbook that Jools was reading, its focus – ideology.

The headteacher questioned him about his motivation.  I’ll paraphrase.

“I’ve suddenly realised that history is the history of ideas.  The ideas in this book are the ideas that have driven revolutions and governments throughout history.  But they are old ideas and there isn’t anything new.   We’ll keep repeating history if we keep recycling old ideas.”

I can tell the headteacher is impressed.  I’m impressed myself.  It’s one of those moments when you remember why you went into teaching in the first place.  It’s one of the moments when you feel the reward of messy classrooms and messy lessons.  I had noticed that such moments were becoming increasingly rare.  I’d become tidy and was teaching to the test.

For me, the lack of encouragement of messy thinking in the education system is its greatest flaw.   We have a generation of learners who are too afraid to fail, too afraid to make a mistake, too afraid to just give it a go.  We need thinkers for change to happen.  Otherwise, the next generation is at the mercy of the flux of old ideas and will suffer the impact of the status quo.

Today is a radio short rather than a contribution to the film feast.  It is relevant to the theme – a new story for the future.

Will Self on Teaching to the Test  (BBC Radio 4 “Point of View” 9:34 mins long).


Featured Image: Creator: NY –


4 thoughts on “Thinking is Messy

  1. So good to read your post Safar. What a shame education is missing out on thoughtful teachers like yourself.
    I agree whole heartedly. I left teaching in 2000 when things were changing in Australian schools. Reports became computerised and less informative. I was glad to leave, but was left with some wonderful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Know what you mean about the reporting system. Similar to here, we had comment banks of how students were performing to target. I know as a parent I never got a sense of my child in the reports. Thank you for your comment, Barbara. I heard similar views when I visited a school in Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It was quite cathartic, I’ve not spoken much or written about the decision to leave education – think it hurt to do so. What I’ve seen of Opher’s views regarding education seem in sync with my own. Think he must have been a wonderful head teacher.


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