Messiness and Change

By. Andy Shaw, Dean of Curriculum and Innovation

I’ve been thinking of late about the messiness around school. Not the literal cleanliness of the space, to be precise: despite an occasional abandoned lunch plate I think the students are doing a pretty good job this year taking care of the building. The messiness I’ve been thinking about has more to do with the fact that the process of learning isn’t linear, it’s not “clean”, it’s not free of setbacks and chaos. This messiness is visible everywhere in school. I see it in the Humanities rooms, where assignments are posted on walls and then adorned with sticky notes where classmates offer praise and critique; we’re posting rough drafts, not final drafts. I see it in the richness of final projects, from art pieces to science presentations to graded discussions, all of which allow for and require much more complexity and nuance than a traditional final exam: there is rarely a single right answer or a single valid approach.  And I see messiness in the self-reflections students are writing for their report cards this week; at Bay report cards don’t simply capture the end result of the term by way of a grade, they capture the complicated learning process that unfolded over the term, described both from the student’s and the teacher’s perspective.

I like the fact that our school is messy in this way because I think honoring and showing the messiness is not only a more accurate representation of what real learning looks like, but is also a good representation of what I hope our graduates’ lives will be like. I hope our students take on the messy work of the world, whether it is in the form of wrestling with tough research questions, solving intractable world problems, or being the kind of makers and creators who create elegance out of chaos.

I also like the fact that as a school we are willing to show students, and parents/guardians, the messiness of being a teacher and being a school. We try new things as teachers, and we’re open about that with families. We tinker, we test, we assess, we improve. We know that the challenges of the coming decades require fundamental changes in the way we “do school,” and so we don’t hide from those outside the staffulty the fact that we’re being messy as well, to try always to grow, to succeed, to build the best school we can for our students and our world. For me it’s not about major initiatives, although those are sometimes necessary, but rather about the constant process, as individuals and as an institution, of asking ourselves, “How did that go? How can I do better next time? Is this getting me closer to where I want to end up?” For us at Bay, of course, “where we want to end up” is the certainty that we’re doing everything we can to prepare our students for the complex world they’ll lead, decades from now.

Of course, as Ted and Nancy Sizer, two of my favorite educators and writers, titled one of their books, “The students are watching.” The not-so-secret payoff of making visible the adults’ messiness – our ongoing experimentation, reflection, inquiry, and improvement – comes from the fact that the students are always watching, always absorbing, always modeling their growth off of what they see around them. And so even while I am pleased that Bay’s efforts at innovation and improvement are making the school the best place it can be, I’m at least as pleased that our students are learning to take risks, disrupt, reflect, adopt a growth mindset, and pursue a life of continuous improvement by watching the adults around them do the same. That’s the best kind of messiness I could ask for.