• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


The Benefits of Disorganized Learning

I'm starting to think that my assignments are over-engineered.

July 12, 2016



I was recently disappointed to hear that street hockey is under threat in Canada. Thanks to public safety laws put into place banning children from playing in the streets, what was once a widely-shared pastime is increasingly endangered.

I am not Canadian, but I grew up playing street hockey and remember well the days of “Car!” crying out, us moving the goals aside long enough for the vehicle to pass through. The drivers, our neighbors or parents would smile and wave. Goals back in position, “Game on!” and we’d continue.

In winter, it was floor hockey in the basement,  2 on 2 tournaments that could last an entire day. We had no coaches, no referees. We argued, fought, cried, pouted, broke things, fixed things, but we never turned to an adult for adjudication because we didn’t want those adults to know what the hell we were up to lest the fun be shut down.

Writing in the Guardian, Colin Horgan is most worried about losing a connection to sport that is independent of parental or coach oversight, where kids have to make rules and navigate disputes for themselves.

Horgan argues for the benefits of “disorganization,” as a way for kids to learn “skills they need to be successful adults, such as focus and concentration and repetition.”

That “goofing around,” may be doing some real good.

I started to think how this might apply to teaching writing.


One of the things I’m most pleased with in my courses is their organization. I like to run a well-organized course, the schedule planned, each class assignment and period scaffolded from the previous.

When I introduce an assignment, I walk students through the stages, and as we advance, remind them of what we’ve done, where we’re going. I teach process, but I want them to know where they should be in that process and provided incentives to stay at least somewhat close to the benchmarks of the process.

I think this structure is a comfort for both the students and me. We know what we’re doing. It is easy to prepare, and to know what to do next.

In a lot of ways, I’m like a coach structuring a practice. I have planned the drills and skills and then let students free to practice them. I believe, I know, those skills to be important, but I am also always present, overseeing the work, guiding them to what’s next.

I’ve always thought that I give students a lot of freedom. They can choose their own topics on every assignment. They can (must, really) introduce their own ideas about the world into their arguments.

But I’m suddenly recognizing that I’m not giving them as much freedom as I think. Sure, the essays themselves may be the equivalent to the game itself in sports, but reflecting on Horgan’s argument about the power of disorganization, I see that there may be value in not just preparing them for the games I’ve designed, but for allowing them to make their own games.

As I’ve come to realize as a working writer, it’s pretty rare that the world provides me a prompt, but the necessity of seeking out ideas to respond to is a vital part of the writing process. As I read, I’m forced to ask myself if I find something interesting or important, if I have something to say in response. That process helps me to know my own mind, and after that, I have to figure out how to translate what’s inside my head to an audience.

This is often hard, but it’s also quite fun, like when you run across an article about the decline in streetball and you have an epiphany about teaching. I’m sure I find it more enjoyable than most, but if I stand a chance of interesting the average college student in writing, shouldn’t I let them experience this aspect of the work that is, in fact, most enjoyable?

Horgan believes that streetball is important because it is, above all, “fun” in ways formal games and practice are not. No child needs to be dragged to the streetball game. The lack of stakes and oversight result in a kind of liberation. I’m thinking about streetball games from 35 years ago and a smile comes to my face.

I want my students to experience liberation when it comes to writing and thinking, the freedom that is so meaningful to me as I do this work.

This is not to say that I now believe writing courses should be free-for-alls without structure or guidance or specific assignments, but maybe there is a balance to be struck.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that kind of assignment would look like. Could a prompt be as broad as: Write something meaningful?

What about just: Write something?

Perhaps the key would be to pair the assignment with a reflection: Why did you choose to write this? What did you experience in the writing?

How much freedom do you give your students? Do you have any assignments that embrace disorganized activities?




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