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Creativity comes from constraint.” Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter

During my last group marimba lesson, our teacher, Arlyn Alderdice of Embodying Rhythm, asked us to start class improvising within some very strict constraints. We were allowed to play only three, carefully chosen notes in two different rhythms. At first I thought these limitations would be boring and repetitive, but once I started improvising within these constraints, I felt a creative freedom like no other improvisation we had tried in past lessons. The music our group played together within those simple constraints sounded vibrant and creative. There was no dissonance, because the notes we were given all harmonized with each other. When we ended our improvisation, we smiled at each other with a satisfied sense of accomplishment.

As I left marimba class that day, I wondered how constraints might lead to creativity in other areas of education as well. This idea reminded me of the philosophy espoused by Maria Montessori and her method of education. She believed that children would thrive if they had freedom within limits. Since my daughter attended a Montessori school for the first nine years of her education, I had the opportunity to observe this theory in practice. I watched as students as young as three years old chose their ‘work’ each day with blocks, beads, sand, and water. They had freedom to choose activities within the limits of the classroom materials and curricular goals. As they transitioned to the upper grades, they had the freedom to choose when to work on math, writing, and reading, which tasks to complete, and which research projects they would focus on. As an educator from a more traditional background, I sometimes felt uncomfortable with the freedom these students were given. What I failed to notice were the carefully chosen constraints the teachers and curriculum had provided. These ‘constraints’ served as supports and guidelines for the students. The teachers knew that the choices they gave the students all harmonized with each other and would lead to deep learning.

Returning to the marimba class, Arlyn revealed another way to find creativity within the constraints; she encouraged us to experience the space between notes by taking rests. When I gave myself the chance to miss a beat, I found a different experience with the music and jumped back into playing the three notes with new ideas. I think our students also need the permission to experience some space when they are working on assignments, writing a paper, figuring out a math problem, or designing an art project. Sometimes I think I push my students to keep going rather than giving them the freedom of ‘space’ to find their own creativity. Allowing students the chance to take a rest between focused periods of work and concentration may be just what they need to return to the project or assignment with renewed creativity and energy.

Finding the right balance between freedom and constraints is a challenge for all teachers. Deciding how much to model, what project elements to require, and what to leave open to student choice can be daunting for teachers. In my personal experience, some limitations really do lead to more freedom. Constraints can actually spur creativity.

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