TITLE: Patterns as a Source of Freedom AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 30, 2005 10:44 AM DESC: Constraining yourself to a particular set of patterns doesn't limit your creativity. It makes creativity possible. ----- BODY:

The problem about art is not finding more freedom,
it's about finding obstacles.
-- Richard Rogers
I started teaching introductory programming back in the fall of 1992. Within a year or so, I found myself drawn to a style of teaching that would eventually be called patterns. At the time, I spoke of 'patterns' and 'templates', and it took a while for me to realize that the power of patterns lay more in understanding the forces that shape a pattern as in the individual patterns themselves. But even in their rawest, most template-like form, simple patterns such as Guarded Linear Search were of great value to my students. Back when I first starting talking about these ideas with my colleagues, one of them almost immediately expressed reservations. Teaching patterns too early, he argued, would limit students' freedom as they learned to write programs, and these limitations would stunt their development. But my experience was exactly the opposite. Students told me that they felt more empowered, not less, but the pattern-directed style, and their code improved. One of the biggest fears students have is of the blank screen: They receive a programming assignment. They sit down in front of a computer, open a text editor, and ... then what? Most intro courses teach ways to think about problems and design solution, but they tend to be abstract guidelines. Even when students are able to apply them, they eventually reach the moment at which they have to write a line of code ... and then what? The space of all possible programs that students can write overwhelms many novices. The most immediate value in knowing some programming patterns is that the patterns constrain the space to something more reasonable. If the problem deals with processing items in a collection, then students need only recognize that the problem is a search problem to focus in on a few standard patterns for solving such problems. And each pattern gave them concrete advice for writing actual code to implement the pattern -- along with some things to think about as they customized the code to their specific situation. So, rather than limiting novice programmers, patterns freed them. They could now proceed with some confidence in the task of writing code. But I think that patterns do more than help programmers become competent. I think that they help already competent programmers become creative.

You can't create unless you're willing to subordinate the creative impulse to the constriction of a form.
-- Anthony Burgess
Just as too much freedom can paralyze a novice with an overabundance of possibility, too much freedom can inhibit the competent programmer from creating a truly wonderful solution. Sticking with a form requires the programmer to think about resources and relationships in a way that unconstrained design spaces do not. This certainly seems to be the case in the arts, where writers, visual artists, and musicians use form as a vehicle for channeling their creative impulses. Because I am an academic computer scientist, writing is a big part of my job, too. I learned the value of subordinating my creative impulse to the constriction of a form when I began to write patterns in the ways advocated with the patterns community. I've written patterns in the Gang-of-Four style, the PoSA style, the Beck form, and a modified Portland Form. When I first tried my hand at writing some patterns of knowledge-based systems, I *felt* constricted. But as I became familiar with the format I was using, I began to ask myself how best to express some idea that didn't fit obviously into the form. Often, I found that the reason my idea didn't fit into the form very well is that I didn't have a clear understanding of the idea itself! Holes in my written patterns usually indicated holes in my thinking about the software pattern. The pattern form guided me on the path to a better understanding of content that I thought I already knew well. Constraining ourselves to a form is but one instance of a more general heuristic for creating. Sometimes, the annoying little problems we encounter when doing a task can play a similar role. I love this quote from Phillip Windley, reporting some of the lessons that 37signals learned building Basecamp:
Look at the problems and come up with creative solutions. Don't sweep them under the rug. Constraints are where creative solutions happen.
Constraints are where creative solutions happen. -----