Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation

A snippet of dialogue that occurred multiple times over the last three weeks:  I had challenged my 6th grade TIDE (Technology, Innovation, Design and Engineering) students to design, engineer and showcase something that would inspire and/or impact another person.  Individually or in small groups, they had come up with some great ideas including light-up slime, a website to help people find and donate to credible charities and R.’s idea that involved designing and building a moving vehicle that younger kids could experiment and play with.

The students, using design thinking, began by empathizing with the end user of the product they had decided to create.  After ideating and zeroing in one idea, they were now building their first prototypes and R. was struggling.  In all of our design challenges, there are criteria and constraints.  I believe that constraint begets creativity and innovation.  In this particular challenge, because so many ideas were being pursued, the primary constraint I gave the students was that they needed to create their prototype/s using things that they could find in our room.  I had one motor in the classroom, this was R.’s sticking point.

In his daily productivity logs, R. let me know again and again that he would not be able to successfully create the moving vehicle that he had envisioned unless he had many more motors.  
Four days into the challenge, I almost gave in but then I reminded myself of what happens when we have constraints.  We are forced to get creative.  We are compelled to get innovative.  We are pushed to think more deeply.  And as a result, we often create/develop something that is better, or at least really different, than we originally intended.  I stood strong and kept encouraging him.  Day 6 – Breakthrough!

After being stuck for 6 days, R. figured out a solution.  He spent the next 5 days tweaking and testing and tweaking and testing his prototype until he was satisfied.  When he showcased his work, his smile stretched from ear to ear.  He was so proud that he, on his own, persevered through his struggles and was able to create a final product that met his original criteria.

Merriam-Webster defines a constraint as “the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action”.  Constraints, at least in the minds of my middle school learners,are often perceived as a negative; things to avoid if at all possible.  After a year of multiple design challenges, each with their own criteria and constraints, I have a deeper understanding of the power of constraints.  Constraints can be an avenue to help learners open their minds, get their creative juices flowing and think differently and deeper.  When paired with choice, constraints push learners to be innovative.  Constraints are uncomfortable though and can be met with resistance.   As the learning facilitator, it is critical to create an environment where learners feel free to take risks while receiving encouragement, support, feedback, time and in some cases, scaffolding, to break through their self imposed walls and become problem solving innovators.  Constraints become the wings that allow a learner to fly.

                                                                                     Photo Credit:  Kyle Szegedi (Unsplash)
I’d love to hear how others embed and entwine constraints into learning opportunities.  How do your students respond?  What challenges have you faced?  What successes have you seen?

4 Replies to “Challenge, Choice, Creativity, Constraints……Innovation”

  1. This is a great reminder to us, personally, as well – constraints are opportunities to be creative and innovative!

    I often see my students in the "just ask the teacher" mindset for solving problems – it definitely takes some prompting at first for them to get out of that and think creatively about how to problem-solve. When they do, though, that pride is evident!

  2. Great example of constraints eliciting creative thinking! As a dance teacher I task students with creating as many compositions as possible with only three movements and two choreographic skills, which has infinite outcomes. As they get into version six or seven they really start to push past frustration and start making more mature responses.

    1. When I really started to think about the power of constraints, it kind of blew my mind a little bit. At the end of the day, it’s all about problem solving. I love the idea of a composition limited to 3 movements and 2 skills leading to an infinite series of outcomes! I also agree that experiencing frustration (ie – the “wall”) is an important component of breaking through barriers to push our thinking. Thanks for reading and participating Tim!

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