Learning Chaos

How Disorder Can Save Education

Book Review by the edCircuit Editorial Staff

We’ve all had teachers who changed our lives. Whatever the subject, they passed on their excitement about discovery and imagination, never doubting their students’ capacity to grow. They were avid learners themselves. They stood out because they stood up for learning in everything they did.

Learning Chaos, How Disorder Can Save Education captures both the spirit and practice of these miracle workers. This little gem of a book is a fast-paced read that will change how you think about teaching. It’s filled with humor, research and lessons learned from a lifetime in teaching.

“I was in the principal’s office as a teacher as much as when I was a student,” says author Mac Bogert. “Not that I wanted to make trouble, but I felt then, and still do, that everything in a school should support learning. If it doesn’t, we need to ask why? So much of what happens in our schools — sitting students in rows, for example, grouping by age — holds learning back.”

The first paragraph sets the stage (and tempo) for the rest of the book — a fearless questioning of the current system:

Drive by a medium-security prison. Take away the razor wire, add a mascot, and what do you have? A public school. They both contain people whose attendance is mandatory. Both are managed by a top-down hierarchy. When challenged by change, both generate more rules. There are some differences: You can’t be expelled from prison. Prisoners can’t pack a lunch. Children can’t appeal their sentence.

From there, Bogert takes us on a serious yet light-hearted journey (a tough balance, but he pulls it off) through four chapters and a “how to” appendix. Each is filled with stories of exceptional classrooms, experience (from 50 years of teaching everything from grammar to blues guitar), and practical steps to introduce constructive chaos into our classrooms.

The first chapter, Discovery, shares insights into the boundless nature of the human mind and its capacity for learning. We’re all eager to explore and find out, to seek out new ideas, new relationships, new applications. We don’t need to make students learn but to remove the barriers (like grade levels, lectures, underestimating children’s endless capacity) that stand in the way of their inherent and boundless curiosity.

The second chapter, Assembly, follows. This chapter cites example after example about how much more engaged students — Including “tall children,” aka adults — are when they make something tangible that has meaning for them. Bogert draws on examples from all kinds of schools that show how excited, dedicated and focused students become when given something tangible to create. He also cites some fascinating research about how the brain functions more powerfully when engaged in doing.

The third chapter, Skepticism, was the favorite among the editorial staff. We have access to more information than ever before. And we don’t get enough practice in developing a healthy attitude of really? Bogert says teachers need to nurture questions over answers. Teachers can practice modeling self-skepticism, the wonderful habit captured by the bumper sticker at the start of the chapter: Don’t believe everything you think. How many of our current problems would be diminished if we were all more skeptical about information (especially in the age of the Internet)? We can learn the habit of courageously accepting and even seeking feedback to help us illuminate our own assumptions.

Finally, the fourth chapter Fluidity challenges some shibboleths that are leftovers from what Bogert calls the “industrial mindset.” He suggests we’re still stuck in a frame of reference that sees schools like factories. He points out that we all come to learning with different learning needs. There’s no single way to learn.  In order to use these differences as a resource, teachers (and parents, and administrators) can be more comfortable with ambiguity, and question the factory model that treats students as parts rather than as people.

“Schools should be communities of learning rather than assembly lines of uniformity,” the author suggests. Occasionally, Learning Chaos comes across like a shotgun, ideas bouncing around and a little hard to follow. That chaos is part of the message — ambiguity incites us to think and to reach our own insights.

The final section of Learning Chaos: Creating a Learning Chaos Environment is a practical, step-by-step outline that takes five traditional classroom tenets (e.g., “Student learning is the instructor’s responsibility”) and demonstrates how to turn these on their head (“Everyone’s learning is everyone’s responsibility”).

Learning Chaos, How Disorder Can Save Education is a must-read for educators who want to unlock the true learning potential of their students as well as themselves. It is available on Amazon in multiple formats.

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