Time for some messy holiday reading?



Martin Belton makes his way to the beach and discovers something revealing in a recent business best seller which has implications for the way we create and use elearning content

Personally, my holiday reading usually consists of something nice and light. ‘Not too taxing’ is my favourite review comment. But I know some of you long to catch up with the latest business best seller. If that’s you, then I recommend something from last year titled “Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” by Tim Harford.

You can get a good flavour of the book in Harford’s recent excellent TED talk:

The premise of the book is that there are benefits to being messy. It suggests that the trouble with tidiness is that, in excess, it becomes rigid, fragile and sterile. The book reveals how qualities we value more – responsiveness, resilience and creativity – simply cannot be disentangled from the messy soil that produces them.

This seems to me a smart book. But I suspect it is most admired by those who, like me, fall naturally into the messy category. Finally, someone is speaking up and validating something we’ve always been told is our weakness. I can already hear the harrumphs and grumbles of my orderly and tidy friends. That’s a shame because, on reading it, they’re the ones that would benefit most.

Harford plays some good cards to support his hypothesis. Most interestingly, he cites cases where messiness can help in learning. For instance, he explains that changing fonts in documents to something more unusual or even ugly can actually improve learning performance. Being interrupted by the sights and signs of the world around us can mean we learn and achieve more not less.

This gave me to thinking: is this why our new elearning tools that curate and gamify elearning content are garnering so much interest and success? Perhaps the different styles and delivery methods of the curated content and diverting activities engages learners in a way that we hadn’t foreseen. By removing the consistency and predictability it’s possible it is forcing our learners to focus on the one thing that matters – the learning itself. Harford would certainly agree on that.

We know that products such as learningPlay, that enable us to curate learning materials from many areas and then enhance the experience by gamifying the learning process, are popular with learners. Whilst we wouldn’t exactly call this ‘messy learning’, it is a long way from the traditional mono-style ‘page-click’ elearning solutions of a couple of years ago, which, let’s be honest, never really captured our learners’ imaginations.

Another of Harford’s contentions is that, more times than we ever care to admit, problems don’t have a single correct answer. They have a range of answers. Again, you can catch him discussing this in another TED talk. Once again, the simplest way to demonstrate this hypothesis must be to curate material from different sources.

I solved my messy desk problem some years ago. I just took to throwing everything away. I discovered the easiest way not to let things get in a mess is not to have things. I de-curate. I may need to mend my ways again.


Photo credit: Glen Noble


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Martin Belton

Martin is a director of Ascot Communications, one of the UK’s leading consultancies working with learning technology organisations. He has presented on stages as far afield as Tokyo and Los Angeles and authored more papers on elearning and IT than he, or anyone else, cares to remember.