Curriculum Approaches

4 Innovative Ways to Create with Constraints

Notebook and sketchbook

How much choice you offer your students can be overwhelming. As students develop toward an advanced curriculum, you will want to provide more choice opportunities for your students to develop their artistic voice. But, how do you loosen the reigns without letting go? Or, perhaps you’re interested in moving to more of a full-choice structure, but are worried about losing technical quality.

These are valid concerns. Absolute freedom for our students whose learning path has been developed in a highly structured, right-or-wrong outcome-based setting is simply too much for them to handle all at once. If you provide step-by-step instructional projects for students to develop technical confidence, it’s important to find balance by allowing students opportunities to apply what they have learned by making their own decisions. However, with total freedom comes confusion and may lead to a reversion to comfortable cliches. Too many risks all at once can make students feel overwhelmed and frustrated.

Let’s take a look at a few key ways to combat the overwhelming feeling of freedom.

Computer and notebook

1. Remember, choice is a spectrum.

Full-choice is not something you provide your students all at once on the first day of class. Instead, it is strategically structured for your media and outcomes. Students learn best when they have opportunities for safe practice and risk-taking without academic consequences. When we limit the risks to one or two, rather than eight open-ended factors, our students have more chance for success.

Choice might come in the form of a choice of subject matter or a choice of media, for example. Choice may also be as big as a choice of prompt, or as small as a choice of colors to demonstrate an understanding of particular color schemes. The choice continuum is set up, so the teacher moves fluidly along the spectrum to provide structures based on where the student is and to meet learning needs.

Choice instruction is inherently differentiated; as the expert in your classroom, you are able to decide what will work best for your students’ needs. Some students may be able to handle more choices as they explore their interests, while others need more support. It is important to consider how to provide strategic scaffolding for both technique and concept. Often we think choice only comes in the form of technical skills, tools, and materials when, in reality, choice also needs to be factored into supporting students as they build their conceptual prowess.

Image of sketchbook

2. Scaffold levels of choice.

When students reach the AP level without learning how to curate their own choices, from subject matter to media to concept, we are setting them up for a struggle. Especially with the 2019-20 curriculum changes, we need to be able to teach our students how to handle full choice as they move vertically along in our curriculum. A great way to do this is to provide scaffolded constraints. Starting your students off with more constraints than choice will allow them opportunities to take risks within their comfort zone without stifling their creative voice. For example, if your students have never combined alternative materials with their photographs, it would be a daunting task for many students to say, “Use mixed media to alter your photographs to tell a new story. Ready? Go!” Instead, provide students with a few options of which types of photographs to choose from, as well as which materials to explore. This allows a  safe zone for students to make their own choices.

Learn more about Choice in our Graduate Courses.

In this specific example, one constraint is providing the subject matter, such as portraits, for the students instead of leaving it open-ended. You may also provide students the choice of taking the portraits utilizing the classroom studio lighting with your support or on their own outside of class, depending on their comfort levels and personal interest. Another constraint could be expecting students to try specific alternative media such as embroidery, collage, or acrylic paint to combine with their photographs instead of expecting students to consider and explore on their own.

student artwork

When teaching students new skills, it’s crucial to provide familiarity. Students develop their artistic voice through choice, from small choices such as the angle of the lighting or the pose of their subject, to the wider choices of picking their alternative media. By scaffolding conceptual choice alongside technical choice, students develop confidence with how their decisions impact the meaning of their work instead of getting stuck in the overwhelming pool of choice.

3. Team up for a collaborative challenge.

Collaborative teamwork, in its most basic form, provides constraints to individuals who are more comfortable creating on their own. Just the idea of collaborating with others can be pretty uncomfortable for some students. However, challenging your students with opportunities to solve a problem with team members can add to their overall brain power. Teaming up provides opportunities for practice in persistence and creativity with a safety net of the squad. While it can feel risky for some students to work in groups, this is an essential life skill, whether you are creating in the art classroom or developing the next lunar rover. Students learn to lean on each other’s strengths for support in accomplishing a common goal, taking pressure off of a single creator. Giving students an open-ended challenge, but with the security of sharing the workload, students learn multiple ways to manage freedom and how to work within constraints.

Students creating a paper sculpture

One example of this is creating small group installations using only paper. First, students need to figure out their roles within the team and then have to figure out how to collaborate to achieve their goals. They might feel constrained at first, but as they start to recognize each other’s strengths, they will delegate and assign tasks to achieve their common goals. Students will quickly feel empowered by the opportunity to work as a team.

Other constraints besides paper (materials) include time (maybe three days) and location (perhaps a specified location in your school). Choices can include concept, scale, and even construction methods. Will they create a paper web that hangs from a balcony and dangles enticing threads of poetry? Or perhaps they will create wearable paper costumes for others to interact and play with.

Students creating a paper costume

There is nothing better than to watch students huddle together under time pressure to create something that is both substantial in technique and concept. Given specific constraints, students will have no choice but to push outside their comfort zones and work together. Because this is a low-stakes challenge, students don’t worry about the risks they are taking. Whether their end product succeeds or fails is ultimately not the goal, but rather practicing to create within levels of choice and constraints.

4. Practice identifying choice and constraints.

When discussing constraints, it’s important to discuss how real-life reflects all sorts of choices and constraints. Your students might have the choice to go to a movie with their friends (including the choice of the movie and which friends to go with). Still, constraints include whether or not they have a driver’s license and a car to drive there, or if they need to find other modes of transportation, if they even have the money to pay for the ticket, or whether their parents will allow them to go. Practicing identifying choices and constraints ultimately helps students make better decisions both in artmaking and in life.

Try practicing with an imaginative or unrealistic prompt such as, “Design a chair for a six tentacled octopus.” When brainstorming ideas, have students draw two columns: one for choices or options and one for constraints or limitations. One option or choice for this prompt could be a choice of material, while on the other side, one constraint could include that the materials need to be waterproof. By having your students consider both choice and constraint to an imaginative prompt, you are modeling how to consider all choices they might have, but also the limitations that help make our freedom feel more realistic and approachable.

Download this ‘Creativity Challenge’ to practice some constraints with your students.

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When it comes to creating their own artwork, students can more realistically label their choices and restrictions. For example, when an advanced student proposes to create a resin-poured brain sculpture, they have to consider the limitations before jumping into creating. This student may have any choice of media but is limited by their knowledge of the chosen media. From how to mix resin properly to safety concerns while pouring, or even whether they will purchase a mold or make their own, students must consider constraints before moving forward. By helping students identify the abundance of choices, along with the limitations, students learn how to make more educated and informed decisions as they create.

Notebook and sketchbook

Balancing choice with constraints not only builds students’ confidence to make decisions on their own, but they are also practicing essential life skills. Being explicit with your language about constraints and choices will also help students break down the creating process into a more manageable framework. Remember, there is no all or nothing in life, nor should there be in teaching. Reflecting on how you utilize the choice continuum will help to scaffold both learning in your classroom as well as prepare students as they develop more technical and conceptual confidence.

In what ways do you provide both choice and constraints to your students?

What low-risk challenges do you provide your students, either individually or as a team?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Janet Taylor

Janet Taylor, a high school art educator, is also AOEU’s K–12 Content Specialist and a former AOEU Writer. She geeks out about choice-based curriculum, assessment strategies, and equipping new teachers.

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