As anyone who follows me on any form of social media will know, I am an AFOL….that’s an Adult Fan of LEGO. Fatherhood seems to have re-awoken an almost unhealthy childhood obsession with Denmark’s most successful export (…probably), and I’m not reticent to admit it.
So it was with real interest that I read about a study conducted by LEGO. About 10 years ago, LEGO was in a precarious position – it seemed to have lost touch with its core consumers and was haemorrhaging $1m a day. In a bid to stem the tide, it turned to analysis of how children played with the product – this was done through discussion and observation.
Such a study inevitably generates a large volume of data, and the researchers went away and scrutinized the info, putting their personal slant and experience upon it. In team discussions, researchers would go around in circles – “Is this really supported by data?” resulting in further revisitation of the data. So was it that the data was wrong, or that there was something else that was not being measured causing this conflict? Let’s come back to that idea later…..
Some other key points that were observed in New Jersey, were that children’s rooms resembled show homes – everything looked like it was staged – researchers referred to them as ‘meticulously designed’ and ‘suspiciously tidy’. This overbearing and heavy handed approach led to children having less space to creatively play and explore. This also mirrored the rest of the child’s life – being driven to and from activities, micromanaged to the nth degree. Such an upbringing was compared to the French philosopher Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’ where activities were closely observed and subject to negative reaction. So what is the effect of this upon children?
Simply enough – children let people see what they want to see, but hide what they don’t want to see! Researchers found that children would conform openly, but would do things like hiding their favourite toys, or having ‘secret things’ under the bed. This was the only real way a child could have some degree of privacy, and space to be non-conformist. So what was the deduction? Children need space, they need room to explore and use their imagination and creativity – in the past that may have been building a den, going on bike rides with friends, chasing through woods and parks … now that is substituted with a virtual world as a haven for experimentation.
For those of you who have seen the 2014 classic ‘The LEGO Movie’, (SPOILER ALERT) – you will find that there are huge parallels between this study and the movie: The overbearing parent (The Man Upstairs), an influential figure obsessed with uniformity and conformity (Lord Business), a hidden place where creativity runs wild (Cloud Cuckoo Land) populated by individuals whose imaginations allow them to visualize and build fantastic creations (The Master Builders), as well as a character who does not know how to be creative but ultimately realizes that creativity is in every one of us (Emmett Brickowski). Watch it again, with this study in mind, and it’ll take on a new meaning.
So, let’s go back to that point about data – what’s the big deal? (Disclaimer : I am a big advocate of data and its use in teaching and learning;) but drawing parallels with our education system, this study raises a few key questions.
Is our obsession with micromanaging using data killing creativity in schools? Are we turning into our very own Lord (or Lady) Business with our increasingly fanatical use of data? Is our obsession with metrics driving us to go for the safe bet and just get the pass? It’s certainly an interesting question to ask – if you didn’t have to do standardized assessments or procedural testing, what could or would you use your time for? I’m sure that a huge number of teachers would probably suggest that they would want to to be more creative with this added freedom – but would we be able to see the results?
How does this approach affect our students? What would be the effect upon students of a less data driven way of doing things? Would it boost creativity, or would it lead to decreased standards? And how would we know what the effect was if we were not using data in the first place?
And a final question set linked to the last point – What if we are just capturing the wrong data? Is our perception of what is seen as academically ‘normal’ or ‘successful’ flawed? Could it be that as educators we are like that group of LEGO researchers – searching for something that is not quantifiable, or measuring something that is not answering the question we are posing?
Whilst you debate this yourselves, I’m off to watch a rerun of the LEGO Movie and to release my inner Master Builder…..’Everything is Awesome’