Learn the rules?

I was playing with these cool blocks with my 8-year-old. He was making a horse stall and needed to expand it because the horse was crowded. But he got frustrated. These blocks only have one notch each, which is a very tangible design constraint. J could see what he wanted to do to expand the horse stall, but he couldn’t get the blocks to cooperate. If only they had all kinds of these… things [as he wiggles his fingers around a block, hoping the gesture communicates what lacks a word]. He persisted, talking the while, ked through it and, unsurprisingly, came up with a plan.

In reflecting on J’s experience with the constraints of these blocks, I was taken back to a Facebook conversation about this article. The author proposes a set of constraints that he would place on his students in a writing course. Basically, shrink whatever you write down into a sentence. He argues that these design constraints (my term, not his) would get to what’s most important and train students to be editors. The group of smart writing people I was talking with had varying takes on the idea, but seemed to coalesce around the notion that it would only be a useful exercise if the students chose it.

I won’t argue with either point. When I write, I’m often constrained by proposal or manuscript word limits. Occasionally I assign myself other constraints like time, form, or words. Self-imposed design constraints can be a very useful way to learn various skills that will serve a writer, designer, artist, musician, whatever, well.

Another way to think about these design constraints is through the lens of rules and grammar.  When I talk to teachers or preservice teachers about teaching writing, I hear variations on: “Students need to learn the rules before they break them.” I completely understand where this instinct comes from because the rules–what I’d call conventions or design/genre constrains–do matter, a lot.  Though they are far more dependent on audience, genre, and purpose than young writers are often taught in school.  This limitation is, in part, because standards often frame conventions as singular, not multifaceted.

For all these reasons, I resist the idea that the way to teach young people how to write is by teaching them isolated rules, and then thinking they’ll magically churn out perfect sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Pushing, pulling, experimenting with different design constraints, and testing them all out in the world on real audiences, that’s how the conventions begin to make sense and work.  Think of J playing with blocks, trying to make a horse stall, and talking his way into success.  Words or blocks– it’s all about the playing and experimenting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *