Thursday, April 08, 2021

Are Uncluttered Classrooms Really Best for Young Leaners?

Jean Piaget in his office

The conventional wisdom is that an uncluttered classroom is best for young learners. I regularly see photos labeled as "classroom don'ts" with scads of posters and other art on the walls, things dangling from the ceilings, and materials stuffed willy-nilly on shelves. These busy, messy spaces, we're told, are full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate. They are visually over-stimulating, whereas a cleaner, tidier space, with it's bare walls and organized shelves, calms children, which is, according to this theory, the proper mindset for learning. Indeed, research indicates that a tidy space may promote such desirable traits as healthy eating and generosity. People in tidy spaces are, likewise, more likely to follow rules, adhere to expectations, and to make "conventional" choices, which would, I presume, make them better at, say, passing a test.

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" ~Albert Einstein

Research also indicates that a messy space promotes creative thinking and stimulates new ideas. "Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," according Kathleen Vohs, the University of Minnesota psychological researcher who studies these things. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."

So I can understand why educators concerned with such things as "classroom management" and marching children through a curriculum would value a spit-spot classroom.

Steve Jobs' home office

I can also understand why educators might want the visual of a tidy space as a way to appeal to parents considering where to send their children to school: order is very appealing in the abstract.

But it seems that what we lose is creativity.

I'm certain that some people are reading this with arguments in their heads one way or another, because, naturally, we all have our personal preferences. My own home tends to be very tidy . . . as far as you know, because I tidy up for company. I suppose I consider my natural state, as far as space goes, as right on the edge. What I do with the next hour will often determine whether it's neat as a pen or a pig pen. Having spent more time at home during the past year since any time since I was an infant, I've seen a kind of ebb and flow. It almost feels like I need to occasionally clear the canvas, so to speak, before I can launch into my "real work." And then for weeks, the laundry situation is a mess, my counters are bestrewn, and my table tops are home to disorderly stacks.

Albert Einstein's desk the day he died. Ralph Morse/Time

The notion of space is a fascinating thing to consider. For most of human existence, we spent the bulk of our waking ours in unconfined space, with the sky as our ceiling, but we've always also created interior spaces in which to secure ourselves. Today, most of us spend most of our lives indoors and this goes for children as well. Indoor space is fundamentally different than outdoor space: one is finite, the other infinite. We feel we can control our indoor spaces, whereas, beyond the confines of our gardens, the outdoors is a place where we have no choice but to give up control: the sun rises on the evil and on the good; the rains fall on the just and the unjust. There is a feeling of freedom that one can attain outdoors that is more elusive when we're confined. We breath easier, we set aside our urge to control. We can't organize the trees or tidy the clouds. Being outdoors allows us to more easily just let go, which, is the best mental state for creativity.

Interior order is a more attainable thing, or so we think. We seek to control as much as we seek to be free. Both urges live within us. When someone sets themselves free indoors the way one might outdoors, we often talk about it as "giving up," a phrase that can be uttered in joy or in despair, and I suppose messiness can mean either of those things. Our interior spaces are like that. They often reveal our mental state. And changing the nature of our interior spaces can, quite often, trigger changes in our mental state and vice versa.

But these considerations are about spaces we can control. Piaget made his own office messy. I clutter up my own home. Classrooms, however, are shared spaces, much in the way that Mother Nature is a shared space. We release control outdoors, at least in part, because it's simply too vast to consider controlling, there are too many variables, too many agendas, so we "let go" which is a nicer way of saying "give up." When I see a tidy classroom, I see a single hand of a control and it doesn't belong to the children. I worry because I see space designed for and by "management." Not only that, but I know that the children who spend their days in that space are not free to manipulate the environment toward their own ends.

My goal is always creative thinking and new ideas. That is what learning is in my book. And toward that end, I've always preferred classrooms that are creations of all of us, not just "management." This means, "letting go" and embracing the notion of "tidy enough." This is the natural state of a world in which children have agency. It is the environment of creative thinking and new ideas.

It's tempting to fall back on the common wisdom of "finding a balance," but I think that's bunk. Balance is too often just a version of "both sider-ism," a dull compromise that leaves everyone dissatisfied. No, I think of my classroom space more in terms of ebb and flow in which the canvas is periodically cleaned.

Our spaces shape us and we shape them in a back and forth between our urge to control and our need to be free.


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