I just finished up a weeklong Lego robotics camp, and it was so much fun. At one point, I paused and could hardly believe they were paying me to play with legos for two hours a day with kids. The funny thing about the camp was that the site was actually less than a block away from my old place of work. It was strange at first to be in the finger-paint-covered building that I had walked past hundreds of times. But as the week went on, I began to think a great deal about teaching. After all, I had just left a school less than a block away where disengagement was the norm and curiosity and independence were all but non-existant. “That’s not fair though” some of you might be thinking, “You’re comparing apples and oranges here. One is a school where the focus is on foundational academics and the other is a summer camp for playing with toys.” I totally agree with this line of argument. It is not entirely fair to compare the two since the contexts are different. But the reality is that ALL schools will be different, with their own unique situations and challenges. And even in the midst of the differences, there are still useful lessons that can be learned from each situation, no matter how unique or different. Because at the end of the day, each and every one of the students in my Lego camp were fully engaged and excited to learn more.
But there is one point where I must disagree with the previous argument comparing an academic school to playing with toys. I think the key to the camp (an the title of this post) is that it was more than just playing with toys, it was building. There is something unique and special and awesome about creating that sparks our imaginations and peaks our interests, and there is much that can be gained, even from the traditional academic point of view, from having our students do more building and creating in their learning.
1. Universally accessible
Regardless of their background or prior experience with education, there’s something about building stuff that just makes sense to everyone. I did all of my training sessions with upper-middle and upper class kids, and my students from Harlem reacted and behaved almost identically to the challenges and instructions. Both groups were excited to get started, both groups quickly made sense of the diagram instructions, both groups experimented on their own with unique variations to meet the challenges. In a world where differentiated instruction is king and everyone seems to be publishing their own magic bullet cure for saving urban education, perhaps there is more common ground than we thought between kids of different classes. Granted, there are indeed different support needs, so this is purely in regards to what happens inside the classroom. Perhaps kids will be kids and the same kind of things can still excite them all. I don’t know if building is necessarily the magic bullet, but it certainly has proven to be one possible solution.
2. Attention to detail & following instructions
If any teachers out there had similar experiences to mine, you’ll understand the struggle to get students to just be more careful and pay attention to the little stuff. In ELA, making sure they cross their t’s, dot their i’s, capitalize properly, and use enough commas. In math, it looks like showing all the work and checking every step. But it’s always always a struggle. Building creates an automatic feedback loop for being careful. If their mistake was serious, their creation will not function correctly in the end and they’ll have to backtrack, find their mistake, and figure out how to correct it. My students learned very quickly that choosing the right piece and putting it in the right place was critical for saving themselves time and frustration. But if their mistake was minor and doesn’t cause a malfunction, then they don’t have to go back and fix it. This reduces the fatigue of aiming for perfection and puts the focus on being pragmatic and producing something that gets the job done.
3. Critical thinking and problem solving
“Larry, this doesn’t work.” “I agree, what are some ideas you have for fixing it?” This is a commonly heard question and answer response between me and any student. As a teacher, I often struggled with how much support to give the students and how much I should let them explore on their own. With building, it naturally strikes that balance on its own. The “support” in this case is the understanding of the end goal. The student know what he or she must accomplish, and the possible choices are vast and numerous, but they are not endless. They have only the standard types of Lego blocks to work with, which only connect together in so many possible orientations. So as they become more comfortable and familiar with the Lego pieces, there is a sizable but comfortable boundary for them to freely explore within. That is how real critical thinking and problem solving can happen.
4. Resilience through fun
If I got a Lego block for every time a student of mine sighed and said something about giving up, I’d be able to build a second earth. But what surprised me is that during my camp, those students failed more frequently and more severely than any of my academic students ever have. One team essentially had to restart their robot from scratch because of a critical spacing error made early on. I’ve never, in all of my years of teaching, told a student he or she had to start their essay from scratch. The results would be devistating to their confidence and self-esteem, yet the students who rebuilt their robot, were eager to begin again and audibly pointed out places where they made mistakes the previous time. I think the main difference is the fun factor. We naturally bounce back better from things that we enjoy and we want to do well in. Although I think all students should want to do well in writing, the truth is that many do not, and having to start over on a major project would crush all motivation.
5. The economy needs it
This is probably the least education-focused of the reasons, but it’s important none-the-less. Simply put, America needs more people who can create. With the tide of educated young people going into Wall Street and the Finance world, we have lost our engineering and production edge. There are not enough people in the economy now who actually create value and too many people who just shuffle money around. When Obama asked the late Steve Jobs why Apple had opened up a new factory in China, Jobs replied that it wasn’t because of the lower cost. It was because he needed thousands of engineers to staff the factory, and America simply didn’t have enough. NASA recently appealed to the Department of Homeland Security to lift the restrictions on foreigners working at high level aerospace posts because they simply couldn’t find people with enough technical talent in America. The average age at NASA is now over 50 years old and there are more people over the age of 60 than there are below the age of 30. America needs more people who can think creatively and analytically and create.