The Messy Laws of Classroom Dynamics

Over the break I had one of those strangely wonderful moments when unrelated things randomly come together, the muddled thoughts of my mind aided by the (meta) physic of kismet, to produce a new understanding in a third field.

I read James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton, followed by Messy by Tim Harford. There is, of course, the obvious link, Sir Newton, was a slob, and a creative genius, which speaks directly to the Mr. Harford point that creativity is best incubated in clutter and chaos, but I will leave that connection for others to explore.

My epiphany, built for the work of Glieck and Harford was in the field of education, more specifically elementary classroom pedagogical dynamics.

Chaos and turbulence of the world into predictable and understandable patterns. Because of his efforts in that regard, every student of high school science class since 1687 has had to learn Newton’s 3 laws of motion

Harford seems like the kind of man that dresses properly, and I don’t know his eating habits, but distilled to its essence the message of Messy is that often our best results come from working outside the norms, and beyond the rule and presumptions that help us run our lives.

Neither of these English gentlemen is or was an expert in education; (Newton was never a teacher, even when he was a professor at Cambridge both he and his students refused to go to his classes.

But when spun together their ideas become the foundation of The Three laws of Classroom Dynamics:

My wife thinks these should be Cleary’s three law of Classroom Dynamics, but I am a teacher and we don’t generally take create for our work so they shall remain. The 3 laws of Classroom Dynamics.


Learning is not Passive it is messy…

Students engaged will remain engaged, while students being passive will remain passive. If you want students involved and trying and working on their own learning then don’t ask them to sit and practice sitting let them make a mess and figure out how that mess cleans up.


The acceleration of learning is directly proportional to the positive energy in active participation…

Put simply, if you are excited to teach they will be excited to learn, no matter the topic.


For every mess you manage there will be and equal and opposing chaos arise.

Learning requires a bit of chaos. Chaos is messy ergo learning is too.

Like Physics, classroom pedagogy is more complicated than can be expressed in three short rules, and like Tim Harford explains in his book, the best results come from those times when we are muddled and start blending ideas and reinventing the rules.  To some extent I see these dynamics daily in the classrooms of my school and the mind of our students as we talk about their learning.  As it was for Sir Newton and is for Mr. Harford the importance of their work is not found in the discovery of something that many peers and practitioners already implicitly understood.  It is, rather, in the articulation of that discovery so that all may understand and expand that knowledge into new realms of study.


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