Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Mess in education. Mess in research. Mess in ethics


Mess is life
Mess is my life. I have a toddler, after all, and there are few things that toddlers enjoy more than mess. I wear about ten different hats in my life and while some of them synergize, the overall effect is quite messy. People tell me I am pretty organized in my mind (little do they know!) but I am pretty messy otherwise: my desk, my handbag, etc.

I have thought for a long time that life as a whole is not neat, it is messy. And I have thought for a long time that education should replicate life’s messiness to a great extent if it is to prepare learners to deal with the mess outside the classroom. I recently gave a workshop on authentic learning which is based on that same premise. The entire rhizo14 experience was a big beautiful mess of embracing uncertainty, etc.

But let me track back a minute: not everyone is as comfortable with mess. For some people, to deal with mess, they need to impose some kind of order. They do not embrace mess and uncertainty openly. These can be scary.

I think back to my toddler. And as much as she loves her messes and messing about she also loves her routine. She seems to need some kind of order, and if I am not creating it for her, she’s creating it for herself. She makes connections between things and then continues to tie them together. For example, I once got her a souvenir bell and snow globe. She managed to break the snow globe. Now, whenever she plays with the bell she says, “snow broken”. One day, I was feeding her rice and veg while there was some sliced cucumber on the table. She decided to feed me one slice for each spoon I fed her. She then made that into a routine, so she would feed me cucumber every time I was feeding her lunch. She rarely eats on her feeding chair (which is a booster seat i now placed on the floor of her room) but she she sits on it, she demands to play with particular toys and to drink a particular kind of milk. She makes those connections all the time, then she breaks them and makes new ones.

She is imposing artificial structure on messy realities. I haven’t read the psychology behind it, but I am wondering if adults feel the same? Do they need the same? (I cannot answer that question definitively)

Mess in Education – Collier & Ross
I was generally pretty happy with the presentation Amy Collier and Jen Ross gave about mess in education at the #et4online conference. As I said earlier, I believed mess to be what life is like, and that education should mimick that. But some teachers they quoted brought up some interesting things: maybe education should be organized or structured to counter the mess in real life. Maybe structure is a way to help learners approach mess. I don’t know that I agree with that, but it is an interesting idea to consider.

The last class I taught was a bit messy. Well the whole semester has been messy, because I am teaching two different classes in one class, with some common material and some split. But last class was messier than usual because there were several technical things to be done and people kept messing up their passwords. It was frustrating and took up loads of class time unnecessarily. When I got back home, I thought of how to deal with this, and I emailed my students some tips on how to avoid that kind of waste of time again, how to avoid losing time when your passwords don’t work (this was a combination of tips on how to set good memorable passwords, tips on resetting passwords, etc.). What had I just done? I had provided some kind of structure to deal with what I considered unnecessary mess. Because, hey! Not every kind of mess is valuable – it is not valuable just because it is.

There is learning value to a toddler when she takes her food and spreads it around and sees what will happen to it. There is a value to her. Not so much to me. Which means I will allow it to some extent but I will reach a limit when I feel the need to stop her for my own sanity. Or I will put her in the kitchen so that cleaning the mess is easier. Those are ways of dealing with mess.

Someone in the audience asked Amy and Jen how to apply this mess thing when teaching maths. Many philosophical discussions of.better” pedagogy fall apart when confronted with STEM disciplines. This, I feel, is a function of several things:
1. STEM disciplines, at least at earlier levels, tend towards rules/formulas, etc., and have pre-requisites, etc., so there is less room for open approaches (I do not consider Mazur’s think-pair-share and ConcepTests that “open”, though they do seem to me to be an improvement on lecturing and individual problem-solving)
2. There is an assumption about universality – why should we assume that every idea we think works for social science teaching should work with sciences? Why assume it is just a matter of tweaking and imagination? (This reminds me of the red line video!)

But seriously: I do think there is “mess” in STEM disciplines. Of course there is, the world is messy. The world does not give you neat mathematical problems (usually not) and we all have heard of the stories of inner city kids who couldn’t do math in school but intuitively did the statistics for basketball games. It is an example of how a less-than-orderly situation, because it is authentic and of interest to the learner, can motivate them to do math, even though they don’t seem to be formally learning it in school.

When talking about critical thinking and authentic learning, we often talk about the importance of posing ill-structured problems for student to work with. Complex case studies, with no clear answer. That’s life. Those are the kinds of decisions engineers and accountants and journalists and psychologists and doctors and teachers are faced with every day.

Image source: CC-NC-SA License by Theophilos

Mess in Research
Research, of course, is another of those messy realms of life. Even science research, don’t tell me it’s not. If done the way scientists do it, rather than prescriptive text or lab books, it’s messy. Things can happen like explosions. Little mistakes can affect results and you have to repeat them to be sure. I still do not know how medical research gets done given the immense number of uncontrollable variables that can “interfere” with any causal relationships.

Social science research is even messier, and Ross showed some data from their master’s degree at Edinburgh that shows how each individual’s circumstances and feelings affected how they approached the course. I recently read Apostolos’ blog about his MOOCing, and the complexity of his personal experience defies any neat statistical conclusions consisting of abstract theorizing about numbers (I will not name names).

Rhizo14’s collaborative autoethnography arose from an attempt to find a participatory approach to allow individuals who were/are part of rhizo14 to describe their own thoughts, feelings, interpretations of how rhizo14 was for them. We are still not sure what we’re going to do with the stories we have there, how to represent them, and how to integrate all the other data from blogs to artwork to everything else… But our idea is to keep it messy, because it is messy, and attempting to make it legible might lose authenticity and stop representing the reality (not that we could ever really represent reality whatever we understand it to be). Keith has been blogging about rhizo-rhetoric and finally took me up on the “legibility” thing and wrote about it πŸ™‚ terry will be so happy as he’s the one who brought it up originally.

Mess in Ethics
So, one important thing, though, is that Collier and Ross quoted from the rhizo14 autoethnography raw document. It was a public document that we tweeted and linked to from our blogs, but it was not a published document… And so it was a bit surprising that they did so. I personally did not mind (nor was i personally quoted) but i became more concerned about how others would feel:
1. What if I had not tweeted about it?
2. What if Rebecca Hogue had not been present at the conference?
3. What if they had quoted more extensively, what if they had “misrepresented” or “misinterpreted” us?
4. What kind of rights should authors of parts of the collaborative autoethnography need to be retained? We thought of a “no derivatives” license but that does not protect us from people citing us – and is that what we want to do, when this was meant to be published anyway?

I won’t go into the details here (so much going on privately and I won’t write it publicly). But ethical questions are almost a always messy, especially when many people are involved, and i feel each person should have the right to decide how their data can be used. This rarely happens in traditional research. What if someone wants to withdraw after you’ve published the results in an academic article? Exactly

This has been a messy post of incomplete ideas…

Image source: CC-NC-SA License by Theophilos


  1. Great post, Maha. People are either ‘messy desk’ or ‘tidy desk’. I am very suspicious of people with tidy desks. It looks like they have something to hide and they should not be trusted. πŸ™‚

    (Typed while contemplating my customary work haystack. I do at least divide into *piles* of mess: stuff to do today; stuff to do soon; stuff that if I leave it long enough will stop seeming important πŸ™‚

  2. I am reminded of how Action Research (, as a participatory form of inquiry by and for a community of practice, differs from methods that privilege the view of an (outside, ‘objective’) investigator.

    Regarding how much mess we can handle, and our different preferences/needs for pathways and help with navigation, there has been much in the media lately (or maybe it’s just catching my attention) about how the teenage and young adult brain is still developing. Consequently, differences in our need for order, and our ability to calculate risk and make decisions that will have ramifications in the future, may depend more on our age than we previously thought ( For those of us over 21, differences in our tolerance/preference for messiness are to be expected. These differences have been part of an ongoing discussion in cMOOCs about free range and informal learning v.s. the more ordered, prescribed path that is more common in formal education.

    Many people develop their own techniques and strategies for leveraging both the potential of messiness and disorder, and the benefits of more directed, prescribed approaches. Perhaps this shows, once again, the need for us to work at paying attention to how we are paying attention (thinking about Howard Rheingold here), and to step back and think about when it helps to allow things to be messy, and when it helps to put things in order.

    • Thanks Mark for this nuanced response and I will follow through on those links – It would be helpful to think more about when messiness in education is good and helpful to learning (as in cMOOCs) and when not. Age and profession may have something to do with it, but probably also personality and personal circumstance? My students are adult, they’re in-service teachers… I keep wondering how much mess they can tolerate, or if it needs scaffolding. I also think about my next class which will be undergrad and how I might need to modify my pedagogy for them – so looking forward to exploring those links on teenage brains!

  3. See 10 here – mess helps with creativity. I take comfort from that thought πŸ˜‰

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  5. Good post Maha, I generally approve of mess but do understand being overcome by confusion and fear of incompetence. Sometime I’ll blog about this but want to point out now that many things in education are introduced on the presumption of previous exposure–the whole idea of building knowledge. If familiarity is a given to cross all domains we ignore what you said Maha about one topic’s tools not working for every topic.

    Not all people respond well to a mess. Some people have never been allowed to go into themselves for an answer–they’ve repeated what they were told and that’s it. As an art student I remember being permitted to cross boundaries and it still took time to learn this. And then all this self-improvement work was trashed in history and science where there were no interpretations, just the book and the exam. This confused me and the end result was an endless defense of myself that was allowed decisions while some of my friends went the other way. We were equally helpless and our “development” was a sham.

    Have to run, will try to get back here.

    • Wow, Scott, I learn so much from your comments here and on facebook. I appreciate the point you’re making about some pedagogies/disciplines “trashing” whatever self-improvement was occurring in your art classes. You make explicit some things that should be obvious to educators but often are not!

  6. Hi Maha! I am not convinced that mess is a useful term as regards learning.

    People make mess, mess doesn’t exist without judgement. A child who is playing with food or texture is making meaning.

    A pile of Lego offers potential for construction. Mess is not the opposite of order, is not the opposite of preordained structure.

    A semiotic space with rich affordances offers potential for biodiversity.

    A pig in muck is not making a mess but maybe taking a bath.

    So your order may be a mess for me because we view affordances for making meaning and relating to our social environment differently.

    In conclusion, to advocate mess in my eyes is a means of provoking reflection on diversity but not a useful lens to present complexity.

    • Well said, Simon! I was using the term mess slightly uncritically, after the talk by Collier and Ross, but even they suggest mess should not be used uncritically.
      You are right of course, that a child making mess is making meaning, that lego has potential for both construction and mess, about the pig making a path… All great examples. So maybe Barnett’s notion of “supercomplexity” sounds better as one to use in pedagogical situations?
      Although I do think what you just said implies something important, which you state: one person’s mess is someone else’s “x” where “x” is actually a judgment of its usefulness regardless of structure or lack thereof. If I understood you correctly…

  7. Hi Maha and Simon, this sounds to me like a contradiction but why not replace “mess” “consistent complexity”? What I found in school was a maddening array of different realities supported by rules that were not negotiable. In the world of SNAFU (you can look it up) it’s normal to encounter difference along with a tolerance for missteps or misunderstandings. In a rule bound world each context has a right way and a punishable wrong way. Observing a single environment like a school with a confusing spectrum of absolutes and easies suggest the place is run by lunatics, not reasonable people.

  8. Yes you appear to understand what I wanted to say πŸ™‚

  9. Hi Maha – you said “i feel each person should have the right to decide how their data can be used” that sounds like informed consent. The question is – how to achieve that?

    • Hey Frances,no, it is more than regular informed consent. We already have informed consent at the top of the google doc that specifies people’s rights e.g. To withdraw at any time. What I meant is that different contributors can have different conditions if they wished. I don’t necessarily know if that model works, or is fair for others, but thought it might be more inclusive as people would be able to opt in at various levels of participation.

      • In my case, I realised that my wish not to be quoted was inconsistent with the document being open (since anyone could view it). It’s not that I wouldn’t trust you or Jen Ross or Amy Collier – it just seemed silly to ask not to be quoted. What could I do if someone did quote me? That’s what I mean by how is informed consent achieved. I am fairly experienced and I didn’t think about the document link being shared on a conference hash tag ( and no reason why it shouldn’t ne shared).

        • hey Frances, the thing that’s got me thinking a lot is: does openness stand in the way of inclusion? Which “value” is more important? I know that it is rare (if not impossible) for research to include all participants, but what if research excludes a large chunk of participants because of its approach? Like doing research in English in a community where 30% of people do not speak the language. Or doing research online when half the people you want to reach don’t have internet connections? Or in this case, doing research that is supposed to represent the voices of the people within a community, but doing it in a way that some members of the community are uncomfortable with? It’s one thing to state explicitly that the autoethnog does not include very voice in rhizo14 and that’s normal and acceptable. But it’s another thing if it’s a large group of people who were a big part of the experience but were not happy to engage because of the format of the research. Does that make sense at all? Am I being too sensitive or too imposing by thinking this? I think I wrote elsewhere I’m concerned about inclusion first, but secondarily also concerned about the value of the resesrch itself

      • @maha we are on the same wavelength in thinking about how openness might impact on inclusion. I think this is the value of multiple perspectives on the topic and multiple research approaches. Your open auto-ethnographical approach can uncover one set of perspectives whilst our ( me Jenny and Marian) approach can complent that and reveal the hidden voice

        • Looking at the diff perspectives that comes out of the two research approaches will be fascinating, a research project in itself!
          Speaking for myself and not others: I was thinking though, that the collab autoethnography did not *need* to be that open. The point was to be collaborative, participatory, to allow people to express their story in their own voice. Openness was more a tech convenience than an intended value (for me anyway) but some people seem to have felt that openness fit well with the ethos of the course and research.
          The issue for me is that what is open is not the research but the raw data. I was thinking of the raw data like a series of mini-blogs (so was ok with people looking in) but now realize it is not really.
          I think the plan now, though, is to publish the raw data in some form but with the caveat that we do not wish it to be interpreted by anyone outside the group. I wrote about the collab autoethnography
          In the latest article Shyam and I wrote for Hybrid Pedagogy and I did not link to it. I realize now that I would never have linked to it in its raw form because it is not yet (in my mind) at that stage yet (not yet “research”)… But we’ll get there. I like that keeping it open meant ppl could dip in and out and comment and revisit. I see how tweeting thr link online meant anyone could”listen in”.

  10. Hi Maha thanks for the Barnett reference – very relevant. Scott I have little faith in the reasonableness of people when their interests are in play. (Human) nature is ‘Red in tooth and claw’…

  11. Simon I understand people can be rats but I’m starting to think that some way of accommodating for this reality might be better than trying to change them. When management declares that the world is now into an era of “permanent whitewater” it’s a direct declaration that obligation and accountability are now out and what-the-boss-sez’ is now in. To me, mess isn’t a problem among equals respectfully (or even urgently with purpose and consequent with poor manners) seeking an answer. I’ve seen this in medical teams where the goal is apparent, urgent and above the personal but do wonder if disorder set before unequal participants encourages group work or induces the emergence of bossiness or power tripping?

    Could we test for bossiness as a way to determine “good” or “bad” messiness? We must need bossiness in some situations but in others it solves nothing. So put a cat on a carpet and ask it a question followed by trying to lift it. If the question induces curiosity only, the cat will come free of the carpet while a sticky cat will indicate interest with claws out making that question dangerously messy and off the list:-)

    This makes me think that there are questions or situations that induce the urge to take control over the urge to cooperate? Or maybe it’s the people and not the situation itself? In Rhizo14 we have a mess of difficult questions that can’t be answered with certainty thus neutralizing the control-by-being-a-know-it-all mechanism which throws people into a state of open speculation. This “permission” to think out loud is a condition of the participants willingness to engage without advantage–something like spontaneous cooperation mixed with respect and self-control which transfers the question from a “problem” to an engagement without necessary resolution. Not needing a final “solution” is also a form of agreement and a type of trust in the general usefulness of the discovery path and also the notion that the value here is not in the specific ownership of an idea but the dynamics of its creation and the delight in the work. A kind of potentiality of unselfishness in discovery. Or a true Toddler’s Mess.

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  13. Well, all my comments today are about complexity, so from my perspective, Maha, messiness is complexity, and I’m convinced that all our attempts to wrench reality into the simple domain are basically doomed because reality is complex. We can establish small spaces of simplicity: a sock drawer, for instanceβ€”dress socks here and casual socks there. We create such spaces for clarity and convenience and control, but life is largely indifferent to our neat little pockets of simple order, and from time to time, a sock will flee down lines of deterritorialization (to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term) to become something else somewhere else, and my neat little sock drawer is left with an unmatched sock.

    I will never argue against neat sock drawers arranged in perfect order, but I will argue that it is unreasonable to expect rhizomatic reality never to intrude, often at the worst time.

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