Books for Transformation: A Beautiful Constraint

Last month I shared TED Talks to provide inspiration for transformation.  This month, I draw your attention to published texts that relate directly or indirectly to the Visioning work.  Beyond reading the books highlighted this month, I challenge you to share them with others through conversations rooted in positive, intentional change in classrooms, at schools, and across districts.

To kick off this series of posts, All American Boys and Save Me a Seat were shared with a focus on perspective, the lives of children and adolescents, and the role schools play in their social lives.  Then followed Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, focusing on the need for accessibility to content and commitment by educators to see the possibilities within students as individuals.  The third week of the month highlighted Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, emphasizing the technological device that gave a child’s words a voice, altering the trajectory of her educational experience changes for the better, forever.  Finally, Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan was discussed, sharing the story of a student who experienced loss and faced the subsequent recovery while building relationships with those closest to her.

This final post considers A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden.  Unlike the previous books shared, this is a handbook rather than a fictional story.


Throughout the text, the authors share stories of companies, individuals, and governments that transformed limitations into advantages, problem-solved themselves out of scarcity, and in many cases, made a significant positive impact as global citizens.

The first and possibly the most clear connection to the Visioning work comes through Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to comedy.  Described early in the book, the authors articulate how he deliberately denies himself sources of the easiest laughs when considering topics for his stand-up routines.  This action of self-imposed constraints causes Seinfeld to operate in a proactive, rather than reactive, manner.

Now for the parallel to our work: Article II: The New Learning Standards focuses on identification of High Priority Learning Standards.  Our self-imposed constraint is the challenge to move away from a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and focus on high-priority learning standards that emphasize depth of learning over breadth. We see this as an intentional, proactive measure on which to design experiences that lead to profound learning, fostering the growth of the whole child, and leading toward creation, rather than consumption, of understanding.

“What constraints should we impose on ourselves to stimulate better thinking or new possibilities?”

Our work to identify and implement high-priority learning standards serves as evidence that we are what the authors refer to as professional problem-solvers.  We see the constraint as inherently beneficial, focusing our energies, setting boundaries and propelling our students into profound learning.  These priorities truly provide endurance, leverage, and readiness for our students’ future as global citizens.  Our actions in support of priority standards demonstrate our attitude toward this constraint.  That is, how do we, as district/campus administrators and classroom educators, respond to the focused opportunity?  What structures do we design to support the constraint of curricular-embedded high-priority learning standards?

An additional proactive, rather than reactive, leadership opportunity comes through asking propelling questions.  At the intersection of bold ambition and significant constraint are questions that cause us to think and behave in a different way.


These questions impact our path or plan of attack.  New solutions are on the horizon when we are propelled by questions that include key parameters.  Propelling questions are unlike the difficult questions we all too often encounter in our work which do not include constraints as starting points.  Instead of asking: How do we increase the number of students reading on grade level?  Let’s ask: How do we increase the number of students reading on grade level with less time spent in tutoring after school?  How do we increase the number of students reading on grade level without additional funding?  How do we increase the number of students reading on grade level by the time they begin 3rd grade?

“Propelling questions bind a bold ambition to a significant constraint.”

Remember to grow the mindset of a proactive transformer, we must move beyond the attitude of a victim who denies the constraint and showslittle ambition to seek a true solution.

One tool to maintain the mindset of possibility is to use the conversation frame: Can-If.  When gathered to seek a possible path toward a solution, promote (mandate) can-if thinking.  When team members avoid the negative alternative of “we can’t because, …” the flow toward solution is maintained and the responsibility of answer-finding, rather than barrier-finding, is owned by everyone at the table.

In the cases of both propelling questions and can-if structure, it is evident that our language can make a significant impact on the trajectory of our work.  It is also clear that the barriers of our current way of thinking hinges upon our inventiveness and intentionality to challenge our own path dependence.

I encourage you to read (or re-read) A Beautiful Constraint and talk to someone about this book. Ask questions.  Challenge your thinking.

If you would like to discuss how I have worked to lead my own program in the identification and implementation of structures of support for the constraint of High Priority Learning Standards, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me (Mary).  My contact information is available on the Authors tab at the top of this blog.



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