Sunday, December 01, 2013

Creative Constraints and Teaching

According to The Design Council, six 8-studded Lego
blocks can be put into over 900 million different combinations.
The core of the issue is this:  when you tell most people to 'be creative' on demand, they'll freeze. When you give them 3 crayons, 6 legos, or 17 syllables, they'll make something interesting.   They'll learn, they'll think deeply, they'll get creative.

This concept has been employed by playwrights, computer programers, architects, and CEOs.  It's worth looking at in detail. 

One feature of my work that I'm going to explore more is the concept of 'creative constraints'.  It's been a big but unspoken part of a lot of work that I do, including the six sounds project.  In the six sounds projects, participants get a short tutorial on audio editing, and then have to create a one minute story using six sounds (phone ring, engine, heart beat, match strike, splash, crickets).

It's been a popular activity for ISTE, NJAET, and classrooms around the world.  I've heard comedies, dramas, sci-fi..and quite a few camping stories.  This goal of this isn't just to teach audio editing--but the power or remix, the power of people to take the same group of items and synthesize them into new kinds of creative blends.

I've experienced this myself and used it in my teaching. However, I've only recently focused on the research behind this phenomenon--'creative constraints'

The concept of creative constraints is that creativity and innovation are fostered not by complete freedom but by limits.

In my research on creative constraints I've come across examples from poetry (Lehrer, 2011), computer engineering (Mayer), management, architecture (Sturt, 2013), and improvisational comedy (May, 2013).  It's also one of the fundamental principles of game design (see Salen and Zimmerman's seminal work The Rules of Play--the title tells the story).  Any time a concept is useful to playwrights, computer programmers, and CEOs, it should be taken note of.

When people work within restrictions, they test boundaries, challenge assumptions, and innovate with a set of resources.

One recent example of this in my work was when I was with a group of English teachers in Massachusetts.  They were struggling with teaching The Odyssey.  Kids were frustrated with the language and lost with the plot.  The textbook's emphasis on the historic background was not helping matters.   So, we brainstormed on the 'big ideas' of The Odyssey.   What ideas, language, knowledge and skills do you want kids to have from this?   We came up with the concept of a hero's exciting and serendipitous journey and the use, beauty and power of epic similes (similes and metaphor are some of the original remixes, IMHO).  We came up with the recipe for the 3-Minute Epic.

The 3-Minute Epic employs filmmaking, remix, and creative constraints to engage students in these ‘big ideas’ of epic poetry.

In the Three-Minute Epic students must create an adventure story with a set of ‘items’—particular images, sounds, and epic similes from The Odyssey. This can be a model for working with other literature or history topics.  They can use a variety of technology--from PowerPoint, Photostory, iMovie, or Final Cut Pro.

However, sophisticated editing and technical skills are not one of our goals, so I would keep this as simple as possible (hint, PowerPoint).

For Students:

For this project you will create a three-minute digital story using existing language and media.

It should be an adventure of a 'hero'. It is up to you to determine, and eventually explain, what is adventurous and heroic about your story.

Your final project should have images, narration, and sound effects; music is optional.

In your story, you need to use the following similes from the Odyssey. ( What kinds of experiences can these descriptions apply to?):

  • some animal surrounded, dreading the gangs of hunters closing their cunning ring around him for the finish...
  • some lion of the wilderness that stalks about exulting in his strength and defying both wind and rain; his eyes glare as he prowls in quest of oxen, sheep, or deer, for he is famished, and will dare break even into a well fenced homestead...
  • an octopus, when you drag one from his chamber, comes up with suckers full of tiny stones...
  • a judge at the end of a day at court, who’s settled the countless suits of brash young claimants, rises, the day’s work done, and turns home for supper...

You need to use the following images in your story:


Striking a Match

You need to use the following sound effects in your story:

Beating Heart

Chirping Crickets


  • It must be between 2 and 3 minutes
  • There has to be a story with a beginning, plot, and conclusion (extra credit for starting "In Medias Res")
  • You can cross genres and mix your epic with true life, drama, modern, comedy, detective, romance, action, fantasy, horror, scifi; the setting can be contemporary, historic, fantastic, etc.
  • No profanity or use of personal information
  • It can have characters and a narrator, just characters, or just a narrator.
  • You can add images, sound effects, and narration, but you must use the quotes and media above
  • You can get pictures from the Web or use original images (e.g. a close up of a group member as the hero/villain)


Story is between 2-3 minutes (pass/fail)

25% Plot Elements--story is entertaining and coherent with an engaging beginning, action throughout, and a clear conclusion.

25% Mix--narration and media elements complement each other; audio is clear and read with appropriate tone

20% Required Elements--all required media and quotes are used appropriately to tell a story; similes compare different things

20% New Elements--new images, sound effects and music advance the story

10% Hero and Adventure--each member of the group can explain why the main character is a hero and why the story is an adventure (odyssey, epic, etc.)

References on Creative Contraints

Lenrer, J. (2013) Need to create: Get a constraint. From Wired Magazine Online, retrieved November 23, 20013 from

May, M. (2013). How intelligent restraints drive creativity. From Harvard Business Review Blog Network, retrieved November 24, 2013 from

Meyer, M. A. (2006). Creativity loves constraints. From Business Week Online, retrieved November 29, 2013 from

Sturt, D. (2013). Creativity: How constraints drive genius. From Forbes Online, retrieved November 24, 2013 from

No comments: