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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Stimulating Imagination Through Constraints

Imagination and creativity paradoxically thrive within constraints.

You're a sixth grader. The teacher has just asked you to make up a story. Any story. Any way you want. "Be imaginative," she says.

You're all grown up. You've just asked yourself to write a poem. Any sort of poem. Any way you want. "Be creative," says your inner voice.

No problem, right? Wrong.

Recently we picked up a book called Creative Expression, Creative Education (2008) by Robert Kelly and Carl Leggo, two artist educators from Canada. Ostensibly a compilation of essays on creative process by Canadian artists, musicians, writers and performers, the book also has as its subtext the idea that creativity is a primary rationale for education. Now, creativity is widely valued these days. But as Kelly and Leggo astutely point out, it is also widely misunderstood - within and without educational circles. The teacher says "be imaginative;" we tell ourselves, "be creative." But what do we mean...exactly?

Kelly and Leggo propose that we need to do more than just let the chips fall where they may. Especially in classroom practice we need to be clear and explicit about definitions, concepts and processes. "While ambiguity is important in enabling possibilities in the act of creating," they argue, "it is equally important that the vocabulary for creativity be clearly defined to enable the development of an educational culture of creativity" (14).

We need also to dispel the misconception that to be imaginative and creative means to proceed without limitations of any kind, to do whatever you want. Chances are, for most children and most adults, such an open-ended, blue-sky task is altogether unmanageable and frustrating. And besides, how do you evaluate an endeavor whose only qualification is to have no qualification except to be 'imaginative' and 'creative', whatever that may mean.

So how do we define imaginative? What does it mean to be creative? Both those questions may be considered the guiding spirits of this blog. Indeed, they are twin spirits, for it is with imagination that we internally conjure the things that we externally construct or create. In our book Sparks of Genius we examine the imagination's thinking tools. Some of these-like observing, imaging, abstracting, body thinking and playing-we've discussed here in cyberspace. Learning to use these tools purposefully goes a long way to honing your ability to imagine something that is personally original and meaningful. We've also discussed in these blog-pages some definitions, some myths, and some desiderata concerning creativity. But what we haven't discussed, yet, is that the creative imagination works best when faced with explicitly understood constraints. (1)

What we mean by constraints are any number of boundary conditions, craft requirements, aesthetic standards and self-imposed 'rules'. Taken together, these conditions, requirements, standards and rules define the 'problem' you wish to 'solve' artistically and in your own way.

Recently, one of us - Michele - became very aware of the role of constraints in learning and making 'imaginatively' and 'creatively' while taking up a new art - in this case, the writing of haiku. The first thing many people will say is that haiku are syllabic poems. In the early 20th century, haiku practice indeed included the counting of syllables, and arranging them in a 5 - 7 - 5 pattern. Contemporary practice has tended to eschew syllable counts in favor of stress counts (2 - 3 - 2) or, simply, of the fewest words and syllables possible. Haiku primers lay out additional patterns: 3 lines (usually) of minimal length, the 1st and 3rd line (usually) shorter than the 2nd; two images and two phrases (most of the time); and a multitude of relationships that may be articulated between these two parts of the poem.

Michele quickly learned there was a difference between verbalizing these constraints and constructing poems that met the basic requirements. Or rather, she found that outward constraints were rather easy to satisfy (syllable counts, for instance, or 3 lines short - long - short, or two juxtaposed phrases).

autumn tattletale
again a field mouse rustles
through the kitchen trash


However, in actual practice, constraints framing inward form were much more difficult to grasp. In fact, it was not until she began to explore and define inward constraints on her own terms that she met with some success publishing her poems in haiku journals across the U.S. and Canada. The relationship between the first and second phrase was not simply one of context and observation, she slowly realized; it was, rather, one of suggestive comparison between enduring and fleeting experience, in a way that made sense to her.

fall frost
a new piece of cheese
in the mouse trap

(South by Southeast, 2009)

For the novice the difference between these two poems may be all but unrecognizable. For the adept tuned in to shared as well as personal 'rules' of the game, the difference is profound.

There's a lesson here for teachers who want their students to be ‘imaginative' and ‘creative' and for grown-ups who ask the same of themselves. It's a lot easier to make something personally original and publicly meaningful when tasks are understood as open-ended problems, with ‘rules' or constraints that help sift effective solutions from the duds.

Robert Kelly gives an example particularly relevant to the classroom. When he was in second grade, he recalls, the beginning of each week meant a new set of vocabulary words to be mastered. And the end of the week meant the writing of a story that used words from that list. Kelly loved this task. It was well defined and well-constrained. The vocabulary words would have suggested-but not dictated-certain lines of narrative. But Kelly's example doesn't end there. He remembers one week in particular, when he and some friends added an additional constraint of their own to the set task. They each decided to write the same story, but each from the point of view of a different character. Then, one after the other, they each read their stories to the class. The teacher was impressed.

And so are we. The boys not only had fun, they bumped up the creativity monitoring meter to a whole other level! Though it may seem something of a paradox, they had tightened their own personal set of requirements for the task, making it that much the easier to 'solve' the 'problem' in a way that was personally novel and effective.

As with children in the classroom, so with adults at work in the world. Having well-defined, well-constrained problems, we assert, is much more conducive to creative imagination than unrestrained blue-sky thinking. What do you think?

© 2009 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

(1) Note: We base much of our understanding of constraints on the recent book by psychologist Patricia D. Stokes, Creativity from Constraints, The Psychology of Breakthrough (Springer, 2006).


Robert Kelly and Carl Leggo. (2008). Creative Expression, Creative Education: Creativity as Primary Rationale for Education. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises.

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About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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