Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why open-ended projects aren't so open-ended after all

The other day, as my daughter and I biked home from her violin lesson, we found a large truck blocking our usual way. So we tried continuing straight instead of turning right, which led us to the far end of the park, which we then realized we could cut through on one of its diagonal paths. This turned out to be a much nicer, and even slightly faster, way home. Without the obstacle, we might never have deviated from our routine to discover it.

Jonah Lehrer makes a similar point in his Head Case column in a recent weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. He proposes that the reason why most artistic genres are highly constrained is that they force artists to come up with new ideas. Rhyming constraints, for example, can force poets to find words they might otherwise never have thought of using in the context at hand. Unexpected word choices transport poetry from the trite and well trodden, bringing us fresh associations and imagery.

Lehrer's piece references a couple of recent experiments. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, these don't really bolster his case: they seem to be more about distractions than about obstacles. I predict, however, that experiments that do measure the effects of obstacles on creativity will eventually prove him right.

If he is, then we have one more argument against open-ended assignments. Not only do they not provide enough structure to help autistic spectrum children and other left-brainers get started; they also may not sufficiently jostle students in general out of their habits and inspire them to seek out roads less traveled by.


Jerrid Kruse said...

You are setting up a strawman here. "open ended" does not me "without constraint". Furthermore, being told exactly what to do & structure are different ends of a spectrum. Most advocates of open ended assignments are working against the assignments that provide so much detail that all decisions are made for students. Constraints are important, but your argument gives teachers an excuse to do all the thinking for their students.

MagisterGreen said...

People mistakenly equate the words "creative" with "new and original". Providing students with guidelines and restrictions is not equivalent to making decisions for them or doing any, much less all, of the thinking for them. This inability, or unwillingness, to unyoke the idea behind "creative" from the idea of "new and original" is responsible for a great deal of the garbage foisted upon students as "projects".

“Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” - G. K. Chesterton

Barry Garelick said...

Constraints are important, but your argument gives teachers an excuse to do all the thinking for their students.

If the students have the tools with which to do the thinking, that's one thing. But often such assignments are given before students are proficient at organizing and analyzing information.

We definitely should give students problems for which they have not seen the “worked example”. But there is some amount of scaffolding and preparation to get students to that step. The ed school approach is to skip a lot of the scaffolding in the belief that students will learn the information, procedural, organizational and analytical tools they need in order to solve the problem in a “just in time” sort of way.