Perfect Mess and Student Organisation Part 1

Perfect Mess and Student Organisation

A Perfect Mess, a publication by Abrahamson and Freedman in 2006, examines the hidden benefits of disorder.  They suggest “Messiness is sometimes taken as a sign of weakness ” (p 96),  and continue to show  some valuable insights and learning can evolve from messiness.  From our perspective it is important that at least one more step is taken to provide structure to this seemingly ‘messiness’ in learning. This way we can support meaningful student learning that can occur in open forum  class groups, random discussions around the dinner table at home or in the boarding house and in the way students  are organised  for learning.
Student organisation is very important to maximize their learning.  Teachers are able to gain insight into how students plan their thinking and learning by observing the way they organise their school work and manage their planner, by paying attention to how they work in class, and through reflection on the type of questions they ask and the work they present.


There seem to be four types of organisation adopted by students, some of which are more suited to solid learning than others.  There are at least two aspects of organisation to consider. One involves the practical material aspects of how a student is organised and the other is how a student is organised in their thinking – both feed into each other.   A student may be practically organised and their thinking disorganised, or organised in their thinking and disorganised in practice, or  organised in thinking and practice and finally disorganised in both thinking and practice.


Although A Perfect Mess suggests there are benefits from disorder; in school perhaps we should focused on the idea that being organised helps the majority of students.  Generally speaking if a student is struggling with their learning, assessment tasks and class tasks, their papers  are scattered all over their learning space and their digital file management is ‘messy’ then this might be a flag for the teacher, parent/guardian to step in and provide some guidance.

As a student becomes more organised, for example, in their learning space, the arrangement of their files on their computer and emails, their thinking becomes more ordered and focused on the task at hand.  This may enable the planning and organisation required for optimal student learning. As organisaton becomes more second nature, efficient and streamlined then the opportunity is created for direct thinking and analysis of the task rather spending time sorting out resources. Ultimately a situation which allows students the time to delve into the higher order thinking required to perform well.


How can we help our daughters and students get more organised in practice?


Firstly, create a space at home or the boarding house which is dedicated to learning.  This learning space may be at the kitchen bench, dining table or a dedicated desk in a study or a bedroom.  You will soon notice if the space is not working and then adjustments can be made.  Have reminders about being organised in this space which may involve folders set up in prominent positions, two monitors so students can easily work on multiple files on the computer on different screens or  notes to remind when to start tasks.


Secondly, girls need to sort their files on their computer and regularly manage this process. The OneNote folders or folders and subfolders storing work need to be logically developed and maintained.  Most student  have folders for subjects and then sub folders for units of work – though some students sort work by  terms then subjects.  There is no one right answer, just solutions which work for the individual needs and approaches of the student.  Sometimes it is useful to have a “To Do” folder for work which requires immediate action and can be refiled in the appropriate folder once the work has started or being completed.  The computer desktop is sometimes used like the desktop in the student learning space.


Thirdly, emails need to be filed and sorted rather than deleted in the first instance.  This can be achieved through the use of subject folders.  Emails which require action over the next couple of days can be ‘flagged’ and/or placed in an appropriate ‘to do’ folder.  Also if an email has a lot of information for learning, such as readings or teacher instructions, they can be saved and filed in the required location.  Finally, students should not leave attachments in the email.  They are better saved in the appropriate subject folder so all resources are in the one location.


Your daughters and our students are unique individuals and we need insight into how they think and how they are organised, so we can help them with their learning. We can have an organised student, perhaps even over organised, who may have a busy mind, cannot get started with the work and cannot work through the steps required to complete an activity. Alternatively, another student may appear to be disorganised and yet has a clear understanding of what needs to be done and a mastery of the information, however, because of their lack organisation, cannot readily access the resources required to complete the work to a suitable standard.


Most would agree that disorganised thinking and a disorganised approach to work is not the best recipe for successful learning while a student who is organised in mind and practice is potentially more prepared for greater success in learning.   However, there are combinations in the middle which are worth thinking about; especially if in the end understanding the processes help the learning of the students.


As to the question of helping students to be more organised in their thinking hopefully the first step is to attain some success in their personal organisation and planning in life and study.

NB: written in the context of working in a girls school and addressed to parents.


cheers Martin


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