A look at how various ways of playing with LEGO relate to teaching.
(Written on Father’s Day after thinking of how my dad started me with an Erector Set which prepared me for a lifelong love of LEGO, how much I enjoyed sharing LEGO with my children, and how much I look forward to sharing them with my future grandchildren.)
LEGO, if you don’t know, is a system (toy) for building a wide variety of things. And, as such, is a fair analogy for learning, especially constructionist learning theories. So how does LEGO teach users about ways to use LEGO? There are three different phases: First Set, Multiple Sets, Free-form.
First Set: The first time you encounter LEGO is usually through a boxed (or bagged) set, with an image of the completed object on the cover. When you open it, you find all the pieces (in no order) and a set of instructions. Typically one set builds one thing, although sometimes there are options. Building the set basically becomes a combination of pattern matching and picture comparison, as you try to find the pieces that are needed for each step (matching the picture to the objects) and then finding out where they are placed on the object (comparing the results of this step with the previous step). Difficulty is gauged basically by the number and size of pieces (larger number and smaller pieces make it harder). The number of pieces per step and the complexity of their assembly also influence difficulty, but due to the precision of the pieces (one of the defining aspects of LEGO: if they should go together, they can), assembly is not difficult once you have the right piece and know where it goes (dis-assembly is a different story).
Things to notice: There are a specific set of steps to take and, except for some cases with options for different final object, there are no choices to make; much like completing a puzzle. However, it is different from a puzzle in that although you have a picture of the final product, the construction is just based on the pictures step by step, and, in some cases, it is challenging to realize how what you are building ends up as the picture on the box (but it always does). The image is advertising and maybe a guide for future play.
What you learn: Building a set this way, you learn to identify and distinguish various pieces, and how to put them together. You see examples of different combinations of pieces used to build certain sub-structures, e.g. tire + wheel + axle = wheel assembly.You see examples of sub-structures being combined to build a larger structure.
Related to Teaching: This is the phase of building familiarity and some ownership with the content. You can’t construct something if you don’t have anything to work with and you don’t know how things fit together. Teaching this way is almost a ‘wax on, wax off’ Karate Kid type of experience except that (and this is important) the learned has seen and been motivated by the final result, which they will actually be able to create. Contrast this to teaching lower level math with the universal promise that ‘you’ll need this later’ (to solve some relevant? problem).
Multiple Sets: The next phase of building comes when you have multiple sets, usually from a similar theme, or you have a larger Construction or Creator set with instructions to build multiple models. It basically is one idea: you can combine sub-structures in ways different from the instructions. Sometimes the instructions will be explicit, in that at some stage you will use some sub-structure from one part in another model, but usually it just sort of implied. It can be as simple as sticking two models together (car + airplane = flying car) or just re-connecting parts differently (two dinosaurs = one with two heads + one with two tails). Or as complex as using small assemblies to create new things (Space cruiser + City ambulance = space cargo ship).
Things to notice: The instructions don’t tell you to do this. The basic building rules still hold, but now you have more options. You need different parts and some experience working with them.
What you learn: Basic identification and construction ideas are reinforced. You begin to think of some sub-structures as ‘basic’ elements and to think of results more in terms of the sub-structures. You learn to experiment (some) with failures in engineering or aesthetics helping you form some general guidelines.
Related to Teaching: It would be easy to push this stage like it was done in the First Set by providing specific examples or experiences where they had to (re-)combine existing material into new ideas. However, if you make it happen, it didn’t really happen. This stage is really driven by the learner’s own natural curiosity stirred by some basics techniques, enough stuff, and maybe a small prompt. It takes time and space, and the need for such is different for each student. It takes careful prompting through examples and questioning to open a learner up to this stage.
Free-form: This phase is an extension of the last, as once you decide that you don’t have to follow the instructions exactly, then you can ask if you need instructions at all. Models are now built based on imagination, experimental construction, and other high level skills. Single objects and sub-structures take on new identities (2×4 brick = house = foot = rock = ….).
Things to notice: The goals are now what the builder imagines, and the builder also gets to (re)define things along the way to fit his or her goals.
What you learn: There’s a lot of rule-breaking in this phase, but it is built on some foundational concepts. The meta-take-away is this idea of keeping true to the basic/necessary rules and objects, but being free in all other ways is okay/good. Although once you have this idea, you then may start questioning the basic rules (and objects). For me, I’m okay with connecting a plate vertically to a brick, taking the construction off into a new direction, but I’m not okay with using non-LEGO parts (or even some of the super-specialty LEGO parts).
Related to Teaching: This is probably the ultimate goal: a student has enough skill with the basics and he or she can creatively use those skills to build something new. But like with Multiple Sets, it is not easy to achieve and comes more from opportunity (supplies and time) and opportunistic teacher input (questioning and prompting).
A Warning: To entice more users, LEGO has been partnering with modern media (see e.g. Superman), and even creating their own (e.g. LEGO video games), and it is tempting to adopt this in our own teaching. This does work at the first level, but one potential weakness is that to mimic the media, LEGO often adds specialty pieces that have limited general usage. This is not bad as one can always choose not to use those pieces in later phases. However, the problem comes when the user expects that anything that he or she builds will have the same level of reality, and future building is limited by this expectation. In teaching this comes when we motivate some work with a real world application and sell the idea that this is why we teach math at all, then when we come to some more mundane or just less interesting material, students have no interest in it.
The power of LEGO is the power of good teaching and that is empowering a student to discover his or her own creativity and goals, and to give them the basic skills, time and space, to achieve those goals.