On Boundaries, Constraints, & Kits

Some of this post has been in my drafts folder for maybe a couple of months now. It was inspired by some planning work that Katie and I were doing for a workshop at reMAKE Education in California the week before last1. It’s also inspired by a conversation I overheard2 this morning around some folks discussing the notion of robotics or electronics kits:

It turns out this was the middle of a longer thread. As most things usually are. But I hopped in because I was reminded of some of the thinking we were doing earlier on constraints and getting started. I also wanted to make the case that open-ended kits are incredibly useful for creation and opening thinking, because questioning the “value of open-ended kits” worries me. So I said:


Because I’ve been thinking about this for a while. With Katie’s help. I’ll explain.

It seems to me that a big piece of learning or facilitating good learning experiences is helping to create the right set of constraints. Not “boxing folks into a corner” constraints, or “let’s complete these worksheet” constraints.  I mean constraints more like in terms of guardrails or guideposts or wayfinding constraints. Plenty of other folks have shared about the power of creative constraints.

I don’t think it’s always3 best to give students every single possibility at once and say to them “What do you want to do with that?”

It’s rather mean.

The paradox of choice is all about how, if we have to make all of the choices, we’ll never make it to the good choices. We’ll burn out trying to get from choice zero all the way to choice 986,543.  And beginners in a subject, domain, trade, or field, don’t necessarily know what the rules or boundaries are, which means that they aren’t necessarily equipped to make a good choice, or to even know where the decision points are. So it’s helpful to provide some. The right constraints don’t prevent movement – they direct it.

Back to the part of this post that I wrote with Katie. Sometime in the middle of she and I talking about the intersection of writing instruction and robotics instruction, the idea of scaffolds, appropriate or otherwise, came up. And as we discussed some of those ideas, I slipped away from our planning to draft this:

When you know enough of the rules, or enough of the pattern is sketched out ahead of time, you can focus your brain and heart on the important parts, because you don’t have to waste the will/brain/emotive power on starting so much.

And that’s true in code and poems – but you can’t get to the head/heart/hands growth stuff without having some of those constraints in play.  And some folks get them in play by choice. “I’m gonna write a sonnet,” or “I wanna write about my pet.” But beginners, not because they don’t know things, but because they know different things, don’t know that they need to set some limits, so they get lost in the infinite possibilities and can’t start anywhere.

So we imposed some constraints in our workshop design that got people going. They may have been the right ones – it seemed like a generative workshop4. We’ve been talking some about constraints since, and I’m still thinking about it. Lots.

What successful writers or makers or tinkers or creators do is that they learn about what choices one CAN make, and then then pick and choose among them when they start a new project. Plenty of times, they may not even realize all the decisions they’ve made5.

The important reminder for me is that new learners of a thing sometimes need rails to help guide their learning. The universe of possibilities available to someone beginning to write or create or make can frequently be improved through the inclusion of some structures and limits to help them get started. The trick is what are the “just right” constraints, and how do we help people to both internalize the good ones and strip away the not so good ones when the time is right?

And when is the time right?

More on this to come, I’m sure, but wanted to get some of these thoughts out while the kit conversation was fresh.  Building kits for children is, in a way, creating a set of constraints to help define an experience. It matters how we design those. Very much. And how we present the kits to folks matters, too.  They’re never an end. Always a beginning.

If you’re building or buying kits, what do you look for? And what constraints help you move forward when you’re making, yourself?

  1. More on that in another post. []
  2. Is that how it works? Is that what we call stumbling into someone else’s conversation on Twitter? []
  3. Or usually, or perhaps ever. []
  4. Again, more about that in another post. []
  5. Or, they are building on decisions they made months ago when they purchased particular materials, or started down a thematic road. I think you get what I mean. []

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