If instead you give them a problem to solve they have a direction to focus on. In the case of the cardboard scenario, here are some possibilities:
- Make a unique chair that can hold your weight
- Make a mask to show off your "spirit animal"
- Build a tower 6 feet tall that has a base no larger than a piece of copy paper
- Build a contraption that can launch a marshmallow 10 feet or more
- Give them a list like the above to choose from...
Parameters help create focus. As students gain more and more experience, I begin to allow for more and more choices. In the case of my Art 3 students, who have had to pass 2 previous years of high school art, they are given a list of 20 historical periods in art from Byzantine through Op Art. They pick a theme and do some research about the style, define it, find examples from the period, and come up with 3 potential self-guided explorations of their chosen period.
Each of my 20 students was doing something of their own choice from 20 themes I provided, and choice of media from 10 we had listed. These are significant choices to keep track of. To do so I created a documentation page in my workbook to track their progress. They completed the deadlines portion, and I would initial every few days in their workbook to note their level of progress. 10-20% was in sketch mode. 30-60% while on their final exploration, and the last 70-95% on finishing and detail. If I walked around and saw no progress, we could explore why, consider options, and in some cases, simplify or change the idea to something more realistic.