Organized Chaos: A Characteristic of an Awesome Classroom
By Andrew Pass, CEO, A Pass Educational Group, LLC
The first time I ever heard the term “organized chaos,” I had no idea what it meant. However, it certainly didn’t sound very good, since I focused on the word “chaos.” I thought chaos was a terrible thing and we couldn’t possibly want chaos to exist. In time, I came to recognize the fact that since “organized” was the oxymoron of “chaos,” it couldn’t be all bad. As I learned more and more about teaching and learning, I came to cherish this state of affairs.
A situation that can accurately be described as “organized chaos” is one in which an outsider cannot see any specific pattern by which to describe the events transpiring. However, the individual actors within the situation clearly understand what is happening. These individual actors are doing something that is organized and meaningful. Of course, it’s important to ask for whom meaning and structure are truly important, an actor within the event or an outsider.
If we briefly consider the nature of effective learning, it’s easy to recognize that learners must see meaning and purpose in what they are learning. Learners must recognize that they will gain something useful from the investment they make in the challenge of learning.
Why is it that young children recognize this fact so easily when they constantly ask “why?” The reward for young children is easy to understand. It’s the answer to the question that they want to know. It’s simply unfortunate that as young children grow into older children and adolescents, they so often lose this inherent thirst for knowledge. Perhaps the reason is because typical school learning is not about answering personal questions, but rather, if any questions are answered at all, they have typically been imposed from on high.
Perhaps it’s becoming obvious why I cherish a state of organized chaos in the classroom. In this state, rather than one common experience taking place, individuals or small groups are pursuing their own personal experiences. Learners are doing specific things because they find them important. People are to make their own decisions because they matter and their wishes are important. Young children are empowered to learn when they ask why. As educators, we must find ways to continuously empower all learners.
I am certainly not advocating that learners should be able to do whatever they want whenever they want. The term is organized chaos, not total chaos.
Many people, including me, would argue that it is very reasonable that, as a society, we would want to select some things that everybody should know. Those states that have adopted Common Core have made an explicit statement about a set of skills that the states believe all learners should possess. When individual states specify precise knowledge that learners should possess, they are doing the same thing. If all learning were dictated by states and local municipalities, there would be no chaos – it would all be organized.
In fact, for several decades, educational stakeholders believed that organized was the way to go. You could walk into a classroom and see the teacher standing in front of the room and students lined up in rows of desks. It was very organized and, for many students, very difficult to learn. In a society that stressed the importance of each individual, America’s students were treated as members of groups, not individuals.
Certainly we are moving into an era of far more individualized learning. Students can access information in different ways. Students do not have to read, listen to, or watch the same content to learn the same facts. But I would argue that as educators we must pay attention to something else as well.
It’s a generally accepted learning principle that people learn best by doing. Project-based learning is an important component of many successful classrooms today. Teachers are often celebrated when much active learning occurs in their classrooms. I would argue, however, that it is not a one-size-fits-all model. Since individuals have varied interests and skills, one type of project may be very appropriate for one student and inappropriate for another. Different types of projects can have similar learning objectives, even though they are very different.
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that while the project is important as a vehicle for learning, it is the knowledge and skills that stem from the project, dictated by educational and/or political authorities, that are most important. Students will hopefully remember the knowledge and skills forever. They will undoubtedly forget the actual project. However, without a high quality project that fulfills the individual’s needs, little will be learned.
Within a classroom that exemplifies organized chaos, different students are learning in different ways at the same time. While other might not recognize what is happening, these learners will be on their way towards acquiring essential knowledge and skills, as defined by society.
Andrew Pass is the CEO of A Pass Educational Group and has done graduate work in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy at Michigan State University