One of the best ways to expand thinking is to impose constraints.
Discipline on thinking makes us think in new ways. This happens regularly in product development. There can be market constraints, materials constraints, research constraints, and those constraints force companies to be more innovative. They have to look at their products and markets differently to meet the demands of these constraints. And that’s one of the ways they improve.
This works in education as well. Constraints can force students to think differently, more expansively. In other words, constraints can help students learn.
A valuable technique to impose constraints in education is through classroom improvisations. Improvisations focus the mind on a limited number of items and situations that can be taken under consideration, and thus they require students to dig deeper and think in new ways.
Here are some principle values of constraint when it comes to critical thinking:
1. Constraints encourage us to see the same things in a new way. We’re patterned to see the world and the objects and ideas in it in a repetitive, non-creative way. We are prisoners to our thought habits. It’s difficult to break through the patterns of seeing and thinking that we’ve become accustomed to. We’re stuck with what we know. But if we take away some of the elements of the normal narrative, all of a sudden the world looks and behaves differently. We have new perspective.
2. Constraints prompt us to explore paths we probably wouldn’t ordinarily consider, paths we might not even ordinarily see. If you ask students in a class for solutions to particular problems, they’re like to throw out the same-old same-old they’ve grown used to. If you impose constraints it’s likely that the usual solutions won’t work anymore, and so they have to consider new alternatives.
3. Constraints allow us to re-consider solutions we’ve previously marked as “This will not work.” We tend to operate under the mantras of “We’ve tried that and it didn’t work,” or “But that’s not what it’s designed for,” or “This is the only way it can be done.” But constraints can be the mother of invention and encourage us to question our previous assumptions. This is what happened in the movie Apollo 13. “We only have this much time, this much amperage, this much oxygen, and by golly we have to make it work!” Most importantly, it was a situation the engineers had never dreamed of. And those seemingly impossible constraints made the ground crew think beyond the limits they’d previously set for themselves.
4. Constraints help us see the real value of certain elements or information. We operate with unquestioned assumptions regarding solutions we need, and we lazily do not stretch ourselves to consider novel ideas to recurring problems. But by taking away some of the parts of a solution, we’re often able to see the remaining parts in a new light, recognizing value we previously ignored.
I’ve watched student and student come out of their shell and surprise not only me and their classmates but themselves as well with remarkable creativity when put in a situation that forced them to consider the variables in a whole new light. It’s a fulfilling sight to see.