Reflection on an elephant #change11

Are there any benefits in constraints?
If my bass clarinet (which can sound like an elephant) is difficult to play on, I will oil the mechanism, will clean the horn, will adjust things and change reed. These constraints are not useful for creativity.
I do have some pieces of music full of constraints, the music is too difficult, or I do not like the music. These constraints do not foster creativity.
I think it is not often that constraints foster creativity. Only when a person looks upon the constraints as a problem which he can solve the constraints do foster creativity. This happens when someone takes a piece of sheet music she does not like, and tries to adjust it to her taste. Most people, including me, do not do that.
If creativity is something like playing a fine piece of music, than constraints do not help. If creativity is remaking a bad piece of music into a fine piece, than the constraint is the start of a process. The constraints are not fostering creativity, they are forcing someone to solve a new problem.
In learning, too big problems are barriers to development, smaller problems could be constraints that foster creativity or learning. Like a child that throws a difficult puzzle away, but will try and try again to solve a lesser difficult puzzle.
We humans only can tolerate just a small amount of chaos and constraint. The art of teaching is to carefully present a small amount of chaos and constraint to students.


7 thoughts on “Reflection on an elephant #change11

  1. Thanks for your reflection. Really love the sketch and the reference to the world of music-making in your post. If a bass clarinet (your instrument) is considered to be a “hard” technology – surely the expertise with which you play it, the way you maintain it and optimise its unique capabilties makes it “soft”? Your posting made to reflect that the way any composer structures his or her composition is a “hard” act – the tempo, the melody, the progression, the unfolding. This made me think that the “hardness” of the structure of the composition actually allows the piece of music to stun and please (in the hands of a capable musician).

    The same applies with the curriculum – the tempo, the unfolding of the theme, etc should be carefully considered (like you suggest) – the balance between chaos and constraint.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Is the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” useful here? Maybe it is the character of the constraint that affects creativity? Barriers can drive a person to change direction or risk a solution that was initially judged inconvenient and turns out to be surprisingly useful.

    Or maybe I’m confusing adaptation with choice? Adaptation is a response while creativity seems like the ultimate choosing to exercise free-will. If your clarinet broke and you were forced to make music by blowing through the trunk of an elephant wouldn’t that be creative?


  3. Scott, using the word creativity is often very confusing. I wonder how many different meaning this word has. I think one could be creatively adaptive, and one could choose in a creative way.
    I wonder if we need to use other words to describe these ‘creativity things’.
    artistic or surprising or new or inventive?

    Paul, I think the composer is not always right. I am the one that performs the music, and therefore I can decide what I will play. When we play with a band this is more difficult, but conductors very often decide to change a piece of music. I would like teachers do the same with the teaching materials. Students (as I know them) will change lots.
    thanks for your comment

  4. I’m not sure that there are any hard and fast rules about constraints – that would be too much of a constraint – but I do believe that a certain amount of the right kind of constraint (whatever that may be in any given context) is necessary for anything at all to emerge. Too few constraints leave us running to stay in the same place, too many leave us bound and incapacitated to do anything creative at all, the sweet spot is dynamic and varies according to our needs and context but seldom verges far from the edge of chaos (on the orderly side, not the chaotic side).
    One thing that bothers me though is when the constraints nudge us into places that common sense would have us avoid. Hard technologies make things easier by taking the thinking out of it so, unless we are aware that this is happening, it can lead to some very poor experiences for learners. I am particularly opposed to some of the ways things like learning management systems have automated contingent and unnecessary features of mediaeval (or earlier) teaching systems, like courses, assessment strategies and an insidious pedestalising of teachers. I put a link on the course space for my bit of this MOOC to a paper I wrote on this a while back – see – where I wrote about the unnerving discovery that almost everyone goes for the defaults in an LMS, which turns out to mirror the worst of attitudes to teaching. Not so much a sage on the stage as a despot on a podium.

  5. Jaap,
    Surprise is a good replacement for the word creativity. The breaking, bending or redirecting attention away from the expected pattern I’ve been told is the secret to comedy which is a form of creativity. I wonder how far from the expected pattern you can stray in either music or words before the result is meaningless noise? Maybe it has to to with how far people will follow? For some, everything has to make sense in a regular pattern and some can follow a broken tempo for quite a ways. Sometimes I think in MOOCs we don’t leave enough markers for people to follow and we become too “artistic.”


  6. Hi Jaap – thank for this post which has prompted a number of interesting reponses. One thing I notice – which you raised – is the question of how we interpret creativity – what do we mean by it?

    I notice that Jon appears to be linking it with ’emergence’ and I’m wondering if we can equate creativity with emergence. I tend to agree that we need some constraints for emergence – too much chaos can work against emergence, but is this the same for creativity.

    My feeling is that if constraints are necessary for creativity, then perhaps they need to be internally imposed constraints rather than externally imposed constraints.

    Still thinking 🙂

  7. Jenny, thanks for this questions. Makes me wonder. I do wonder if emergence does fit into the philosophy of Deleuze.
    In my view emergence is not the same as creativity. Maybe, it is the other way around? Creativity as a special kind of emergence? Emergence has so many definitions that almost anything complex could be called emergence. Is such a broad concept still meaning something? Or is it a concept to use when one is at a loss for words. Lots of questions to think over.
    In most definitions (I do use Wikipedia as a guide for further reading) restraints are not mentioned. I came across spontaneous emergence!
    I will close and think for a while
    regards Jaap

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