The Importance of Being Tidy (Or Not)

March 5, 2011

Teachers talk a lot about executive function, the term used to describe the brain’s ability to monitor and regulate its processes when it comes to complex tasks.  Executive function allows us to sequence events, to break a large task down into smaller pieces, to budget our time, to keep track of things.  There are lots of bright students who have increasing difficulties at school as they get older because while they have lots of skills and smarts, they have increasing trouble keeping it all organized in ways that make sense.  They might procrastinate too long, not realizing the project is too big to do in one chunk.  They might remember some parts of an assignment but forget others.  They might lose the assignment.  They might do the assignment but leave it sitting on their desk at home.  So even though these students can handle the actual work, the details of doing the task — of their brain’s ability to carry it out successfully — prevent work from being done carefully or from being handed in on time.

So why am I mentioning this?  One thing that teachers look for is how tidy or messy students are.  We like our students to be organized, and we associate organization with a tidy way of doing things.  Messy binders lead to lost work;  organized binders look neat and students know where things are.  But it is possible to be messy and still be organized.  Consider my desk…

My desk at school always has piles on it.  These piles do not appear to have any particular organizational quality — no folders labeled with “To Hand Back” or “To Grade,” or with names of classes or students on them.  What’s on my desk is a combination of work I’ve looked at and work I haven’t, plus some of my own notes and plans, and on any given day a few stacks of blank question sheets that will be handed out in a class.  There’s no rhyme or reason except a general chronological order;  things from longer ago tend to be near the bottom.  And yet I generally find things just fine.

My messy habits are well-known both at school and at home.  My co-teacher laughs about the appearance of my desk, and the students sometimes comment, “Your desk is a mess.”  (In addition to many papers, I also have several desk calendars for students’ enjoyment, a fairly anatomically correct plastic brain, and some plush microbes.)  According to what we teachers look for, I should be a walking disaster in terms of executive function, unable to plan or carry through complex tasks.  But we plan all the time, and in fact my tidier co-teacher sometimes asks me for copies of things he has misplaced.

Because of my messy habits, I feel sheepish making the students clean their cubbies.  Granted, my desk is not gross — no food, no half-drunk milk cartons (both of which you can find in some student cubbies) — but it certainly could use a cleaning most of the time.  So I tell the students they need to unearth important things in their cubbies periodically (in addition to removing mouse-attracting stuff), and I let them know that I, too, reach a point at which I need to clean.

What does tidiness correlate with?  It is certainly true that some jobs require a level of attention to detail and precision that probably also require tidiness, both physically and in terms of thinking.  Some people say a cluttered space is a sign of a cluttered brain — that precision of thinking shows in being neat and organized.  But aren’t there lots of jobs and tasks that require “un-linear” thinking?  As a society, we are increasingly seeking creativity.  My own alma mater is close to finishing a building that will house professors from all disciplines to work together in creative and collaborative ways.  That’s not tidy — it’s not the suite of biology offices on the second floor of the science building and the art studios in the art building — but it does spark connections in new ways.

My students who have the most trouble keeping their cubbies tidy and their binders neat are also quite creative — one is a writer, one draws constantly.  Yes, it’s important for me to teach them a system for not losing their homework.  And yes, every now and then the cubby needs a total cleaning.  But is it THAT important that they be tidy people?

(And as a postscript, I would like to say that I didn’t just spin all of this to build my case for my own messy desk.  I know myself, I know what works for me, and I don’t feel the need to defend my messy ways.  I just wonder how important it is for us as teachers to require our messy students to be tidy ones.)

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