Sometimes we should just embrace the ‘mess’ of teaching

Don’t fret if you’re not au fait with every emerging research trend and debate - sometimes just pushing through is the most important thing

Philip Mathe

Why can't I be one of those tidy, super-organised teachers, asks Emma Kell

Neil Fleming’s VARK model from 2012 described four learning styles that supposedly encompass all learners.

It suggested everyone is either a “Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing or Kinesthetic learner”, and that educational planning should work on the basis that different learners should be stimulated and engaged in different ways – neat solution to the age-old educational question of “how best to teach this pupil”.

Debates rage

Of course, since then the model has been routinely debated, expanded and debunked.

A search for VARK on Twitter will dig up a mine of debate around the question of whether the model really does provide a reasoned solution to how different pupils learn.

Even now, nearly a decade – and a whole load of research – later the argument rages and the two camps are firmly entrenched in their opinions.

The same can be said about countless models, hypotheses, theories, processes and resources. Masses of educational ideas have beentried and tested, debated, discarded, rediscovered and redesigned – endlessly.

There are always pros and cons to everything. It’s bewildering at times and hard to keep up.

Fitting it all in

Indeed, while many research-driven educators throw arguments back and forth about the validity of models such as Fleming’s, for many teachers (myself included) barely scratch the surface of such lofty issues.

After all, sandwiched between the need to keep your classes progressing, adapt your teaching materials, write reports, keep data trackers up to date, get to your duties on time and the multitude of other roles we are expected to fulfil on a daily basis, I don’t always have the time to keep abreast of the latest research papers on cognitive development or constructivism.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I should try and I’d definitely be all the better for it.

Praise be then, to those teachers who do keep abreast and snapshot information to the rest of us – those Twitter experts whose timely posts can spark a thought in a busy teacher’s head that might just solve a problem, answer a question or initiate a moment of pondering.

Don’t be hard on yourself

But for those of that don’t do this, and rely on those experts to parse the information for us, there is still a fundamental truth at the heart teaching and learning that we all know, and that is sometimes the truest insight on teaching there is.

It is messy, it’s complex, it doesn’t fit well into little neat boxes. It can’t be labelled, it’s not always perfect but it almost always comes from a teacher’s determination to be as perfect as possible. 

By our very nature, we teachers are creative problem solvers. We are sales people, project managers and (especially in 2020) tech support assistants. We are HR, marketing, health and safety, wellbeing, coaches, motivational speakers and a hundred more things on top of our role as teachers.

Most people are experts in their own field, while we have to be near experts in everyone else’s, too. The flipping from role to role is exhausting at times, exhilarating at others and we embrace the chaos and love the challenge.

Mess can be best

But, yes, sometimes it’s a mess – and that’s OK. It’s your mess, you are the expert in your own mess. You know your students, you understand their needs and the mess is unique to them and you.

Out of that mess will come brilliance. Embrace the mess. Draw it out in your head or on paper. All those things you do, all those ideas you have, it’ll look chaotic and disorganised but if you look closer, it’ll also be brilliant and work wonders for pupils.

Somewhere inside that wonderful messy teaching brain is everything you need to deliver the very best for your pupils. It may not fit a VARK model, but you know it works and that’s what matters.

So, while research and data is great and sometimes exactly what we need, so is the mess – let’s not forget that.

Philip Mathe is director of sport at Brighton College Al Ain in the UAE

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