Creative Classrooms: Freedoms With Focus- Create a Culture With Constraints

The idea of operating within constraints—of making more with less—is especially relevant these days. Teachers can purposely do some things in their classrooms that increase the odds of both their students and themselves being more creative.  The components of the following list are constraints the teacher places in his/her classroom, parameters for meeting creative expectations that can actually encourage creative thought, not restrict it.

  • Ban clip art.

  • Add creativity spaces for production and display of student work in your classroom.

  • Modify your discussions to allow for divergent ideas and interests. 

  • Discuss the creative work of experts. 

  • Seek out the creative ideas of other educators through interdisciplinary connections. 

  • Make creativity a criterion on all assessments. 

  • Ask for information to be shared by older students in at least two media formats or writing types. 

  • Encourage the narrative voice in writing and oral presentations. 

  • Ask for multiple possible answers to questions or multiple possible solutions to problems. 

  • Give points for “design” on all assignments. 

  • Instead of simply telling a student his or her response is “wrong,” ask for a reason why the answer was given.

  • Use technologies that encourage creativity. 

  • Ask students to help formulate classroom rules, modify procedures, and solve issues.

  • Honor students’ personal interests and unique talents when teaching skills. 

  • Honor student creativity by giving it a “Creativity License”. 

  • Respect re-mixing. 

  • Teach the proper use of quoted materials. 

  • Above all, respect creativity and the students who demonstrate it.

Many of my contemporaries, the past generation of teachers, trying to get away from 50 years of “recipe teaching”, thought that giving the students complete freedom was the answer. But, they gave freedom with very little direction...”the just-be-creative-movement”...or “just draw anything you’d like” way of teaching.  

One of my co-teachers, when presented with current research on adding constraints in drawing/thinking activities, commented, “ You can do anything you want but don’t take away my free draw”. (Notice she said, my free draw and not the students’ free draw.) Perhaps that type of down time or sponge activity gave her more time to do what she wanted, but in most cases, research shows that if students free draw in class, most of them draw the same thing over and over with only slight variations, and, usually, those drawings are of the same theme. In essence, they redraw safe, well-known subjects with very little thinking required, and even less creativity. Therefore, teachers must also realize that giving more freedoms may not be the complete answer.  


The truth is that limitations encourage creativity. The mind needs focus to excel. Give your mind a center of attention and it will respond. Leave it in the wild and it will wander with no aim and no result.  Master potter and Professor Emeritus Marvin Bartel teaches, “Freedom without focus is a terrible waste...It is a true killer of creativity.”  

Over 77 research studies say that complete freedom stifles creativity, instead of nurturing it. In parallel, these same studies (outlined in Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business by Adam Morgan, Mark Barden   2015, John Wiley & Sons, our Curator’s Corner selection this month, gives some startling statistics, powerful analogies, and information.   


“Every cloud has a silver lining. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Constraints are assumed to be a bad thing, but in reality they can often be the grist that creates the pearl. Rather than being a restrictor, they lead to bolder, more innovative solutions.”   Adam Morgan

“Constraints aren’t the boundaries of creativity, but the foundation of it,” according to Brandon Rodriguez in a TED-Ed video on the creative power of limitations. Constraints are an essential part of scientific experimental design and have driven discoveries in engineering and other fields as well. Too often “creativity” is associated only with art or aesthetics, but there is evidence of creativity in many day-to-day activities.

Every artist who creates must learn to deal with constraints, either those he imposes on himself, or those that Nature and others from the outside impose.

Master architect, Frank Gehry, world famous for his architectural designs like the Guggenheim Museum believes that everyone has constraints and must work within them to find the spaces left to show creativity.   “As an artist I’ve got constraints.... gravity is one of them!   But within all those constraints I have 15% of freedom to make my art.”
French artist, Benoit Philippe, in his monthly newsletter, My French Easel, states his belief, “Creativity and innovation thrive on constraint. An artist does not create outside constraints but transcends them. “      


“For proof, just consider these cultural and technological high points of the last century: Piet Mondrian helped usher in modernism by limiting himself to 90-degree angles and primary colors. Miles Davis conceived Kind of Blue without the use of a single chord. More recently, the very iPhone on which you listen to Davis' landmark album is a one-buttoned example of restraint in pursuit of an ideal, while the sublimely simple Google homepage is forever limited to 28 words. In each case, the imposition of limits doesn't stifle creativity—it enables it.”   —Scott Dadich, Creative Director, Wired, February 23, 2009, “Design Under Constraint: You’re Looking at a Box”“.



1.  Scott Dadich, Creative Director, Wired, February 23, 2009

“Design Under Constraint: You’re Looking at a Box”

2.  Frank Gehry Architect : Master Class   February 18, 2017

3. Benoit Phillipe "Notes From My French Easel" – September 2008.

4. Adam Morgan, Mark Barden, Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business by 2015, John Wiley & Sons,

5. Marvin Bartel, 11 Classroom Creativity Killers, © 2001, updated April 2017

6. Brandan Rodriquez   TED-Ed video  quote