• EdThreads
  • Posts
  • Conscious constraints: Making learning projects manageable

Conscious constraints: Making learning projects manageable

How, paradoxically, constraints can set you free to learn

In the information age, there are essentially limitless resources that we can draw upon for any learning project. This is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because we now have the full extent of human knowledge at our fingertips. It’s a curse because so much knowledge can make it hard to know where to start and where to finish.

Wrestling with this challenge myself over a number of years, and through a variety of learning projects, I’ve happened across a few ideas that I feel can help.

Before the information age

Before the information age, there were always constraints on a learning project. The books we had access to, the classes we could attend, or the knowledgeable people we could reach. These constrained resources made the scope of learning projects seem attainable.

This could create challenges. Often the resources available may be insufficient to get us to our learning goal. But when they were sufficient, the path was clear, and it was harder to stray off course.

The present day

Today, a learning project could take us in a panoply of directions.

Consider a student trying to learn German Grammar. To approach this challenge, they could choose from seemingly infinite textbooks, do one of a range of online courses, find a private tutor in person or someone online via one of tens of apps designed to connect learners with language exchange partners.

This huge range of options can lead to serious overwhelm.

Conscious constraints, a solution?

One way to address the potential overwhelm with such challenges is to consciously and deliberately apply constraints to your learning process. Three constraints that I’ve found particularly helpful are source constraints, project constraints, and time box constraints. Here’s a little on each…

Source constraints

Source constraints are limiting our learning project to a particular source. Or, more accurately, using a single source as the backbone of our learning.

One way to do this is in paper-based form. For example, in an attempt to familiarise yourself with the great books of the Western Canon, you could choose to begin by limiting yourself to most acclaimed work of each of the 26 authors outlined in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

Or, we can choose an online option. I need to better get my head around SPSS Statistics as part of my PhD research. To take on this thorny topic, I’m thinking that this course could be a great place to start, rather than jumping from video to video, and resource to resource, and struggling to make logical and systematic progression.

I love using a source as the backbone of enquiry, because it allows you to take detours for clarification, but to then quickly and easily return to the thread of learning. If I’m learning about SPSS statistics through a course, but I get stuck on a particular idea, I can look more widely, clarify that specific point, then return to the course and continue without becoming disorientated in my learning.

The source constraint approach can also be a great way to promote mastery. Choosing to learn every poem in a specific anthology can mean you truly learn them by heart. Choosing to master arithmetic by learning Greenleaf’s Arithmetic by heart could mean that you end up as confident with your percentages as Lucia Downing

Note: A source constraint can also be thought of as a curriculum constraint. That is, the source we use could be a curriculum document, as long as it is sufficiently specific about what is to be learnt, and what is not (which quality curriculum documents are).

Project constraints

We utilise project constraints when we clearly define the outcome we’re trying to achieve, and evaluate every step of the learning journey with the question, ‘Will this positively contribute to attaining the goal?’

In a previous post, I highlighted how a student going to YouTube to learn about percentages could be overwhelming, whereas my going to YouTube to learn how to fix a loose door would be a no-brainer. This seems like a contradiction (YouTube → overwhelm in one case, YouTube → no-brainer in the other), but the project constraint helps us understand why this isn’t a contradiction.

The goal of ‘learn about percentages’ is very large and vague. Without guidance, students could become very overwhelmed by which video is most useful, where to start, and how to know if they’ve finished ‘learning about percentages’ or not.

In contrast, the goal of fixing a loose door is bounded. Once I’ve found a resource that seems to help me fix this specific problem, I’m done. I can watch that one YouTube clip, complete the job, and put the project to bed.

Project constraints can work for learning projects too. When I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese, I gave myself a year to do it and booked a ticket to China to act as my deadline. The goal was to be able to survive travelling over 10,000km through China, including many rural areas, without being able to speak English. Whilst a much more broad goal, this still enabled me to look at learning resources and ask myself, ‘Will this help me achieve my ‘conversational in one year’ goal?’ If the content, vocab, or activity seemed irrelevant, it could be immediately discarded.

One of the strongest factors of project constraints is that they include deadlines. Parkinson’s Law tells us that a task expands to fill the time allotted to it. Deadlines help us prioritise quickly and efficiently

Time box constraints

A final method worth mentioning is time box constraints. Time boxing is like deadlines, but it’s a deadline each day as we chip away at an ongoing project. A good application of time boxing us lesson planning. We could spend an infinite amount of time planning the perfect lesson, drawing upon umpteen deep and engaging resources to enrich the learning of our students. So how do we know when to stop?

With the time boxing approach, we simply say, ‘I will spend 40 minutes on this lesson plan, and whatever is completed by that deadline, I’ll call complete.’

Note: For a creative task like lesson planning, it’s helpful to keep an eye on the clock as you go, to ensure that you’re not getting stuck on a minor detail such that what you create within 40 minutes will be significantly sub par.

I love using time boxing to read academic papers. I have a long list that I want to get through, and when I look at that long list, I quite frankly feel overwhelmed. But if I simply say to myself, ‘I’m going to spend 30 mins looking at papers now’, the task seems much more manageable.

Again, time boxing takes advantage of Parkinson’s law. Limit the time, limit the task.

Good luck consciously choosing your constraints for your own learning journeys. Do you have another that you think is useful? Shoot me an email or tweet me, I’d love to hear about it!

Events and Opportunities

  • Think Forward Educators is launching their secondary network with a free event on Tues July 25th. Check it out here : )

Other threads to pull on

  • You know how sometimes you need to make tutorials that show people how to do something online or on an app, and you need to take screenshots and write instructions? Well, you don’t need to any more. Simply click record, and. http://scribehow.com will make the tutorial for you. Give it a crack!

  • It turns out that Providing course credit can increase the use of successive relearning (retrieval practice) from 10% to 90%! As reported in this recent paper by Greve and colleagues

  • I haven’t actually listened to this as yet, but I just know it’s going to be excellent. It’s Pritesh Raichura on the Mr. Barton Maths podcast. Pritesh is, on paper (based upon results), literally the best teacher in England. 3 hours of him sharing his wisdom. I can’t wait!

Quote of the week

Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.