Before beginning their official designs, engineers and designers have to further understand the context in which they are designing. Part of this context are the material constraints. That is, how do the properties and cost of available materials create barriers or inherent parameters for the design. I can’t design a 100-story building if my primary building material is wood.
When we, as teachers, are designing a learning experience we know that using concrete representations will help our students think about the content. For example, if I want elementary students to solve a division problem, but don’t provide the materials (e.g. counting blocks) they might not be able to engage in the problem. However, the counting blocks may also create constraints for students. That is, students might limit their strategies to using the counting blocks, or some teachers might force students to use the counting blocks whether they need them or not. To help inform our use of the counting blocks, we have to know something about our students. Once we know where our students are developmentally and conceptually, we can make a better decision about whether a particular set of materials is appropriate.
We also have to consider the constraints of other instructional materials.
- How do desks constrain student and teacher movement in the class?
- How does the smart/chalk/white board constrain student-teacher interaction?
- How do laptops constrain collaboration?
- How does a video constrain student creativity?
The list could go on. We have to be more honest with ourselves about how materials (digital and otherwise) constrain learning. To what extent are we really promoting the outcomes we hope to achieve. When we notice the material constraints, we can make better decisions about how and when to use instructional materials.