High-Flying Constraints: Design Constraints For Learners


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We’ve talked about designing WITHIN constraints, but let’s talk about designing FOR constraints. And I’d like to start with the story behind the above picture. It’s a model plane that my 9-year-old son built. When my wife bought it for him, she thought it was going to be relatively easy to put together. Imagine her surprise when they opened up the box and found these instructions…and strips of raw of balsa wood in the box. Picture 6-10 240 Small

Tiny, almost cryptic, words written by someone who struggled with the English language. Despite the diagram, I couldn’t decipher the steps I needed to take to build the airplane. I recognized some wheels, a propeller, and a cockpit, but not much else in the box resembled a plane. My son, however, studied the instructions, cut the pieces out of balsa wood, cemented the strips together in a frame shaped like a plane and covered the frame with tissue. He used this stuff called “dope” to make the tissue stick to the frame and spritzed the tissue with water; when the water dried, it made the tissue taut and durable. Even more amazing than the fact that he waded through the sea of unclear instructions, is that the plane actually flies!

As designers of learning, clarity is on our minds a lot. Is my language clear? Do the visuals clearly support the content? Does the learner know what to do next? Is the screen cluttered? That’s why it’s important to construct constraints for the learner from the beginning.

In his blog, “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius“, David Stuart quotes renowned architect, Frank Gehry: “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Matthew May closes his blog, “How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity“, with this conclusion: “An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.” He also outlines a study on constraints you may find interesting.

When Stuart talks of constraints “driving genius” and May concludes that constraints “drive creativity”, they are really talking about critical thinking. And both lead to action. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve through our design of learning? Performance objectives are actions the learner must be able to do to perform their job well.

Are we making it too easy for learners? What do you think? There’s something to be said for the cryptic instructions inside my son’s model airplane box. He may not end up being an aeronautical engineer, but the critical thinking involved is invaluable.

Here’s some ideas for your next project:

  • Leave some information out so the learner is confronted with what they do not know, and provide ways in which they can figure it out on their own.
  • Add a puzzle element to the learning.
  • Introduce mystery into the course.

Designing for constraints may not be natural for designers of learning, but its adoption may be the very thing our learners need to really soar.

DESIGN within constraints