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lego, power, open projects

Kids in a school start building Legotown. Eventually, powerful Legotown figures emerge, and inequalities surface. Some kids are excluded from Legotown, some control the enterprise, some struggle against each other; trading markets develop for various pieces. Teachers get nervous. Eventually, Legotown gets destroyed by external forces, and teachers ponder what they’ve wrought, and start a number of “experiments” to see how the kids react to changing rules.

Why We Banned Legos: Exploring power, ownership, and equity in an early childhood classroom, by Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin. A wonderful and thought-provoking essay/report.

[I should note that I am glad I was not in this class as a kid, with these somehow-creepy-social-engineering teachers]

All of it applies somehow to the “open” world of the web, in some ways I have not quite figured out yet. Here are some choice paras:

The nature of power:

During the boom days of Legotown, we’d suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like “Some-body’s got to be in charge or there would be chaos,” and “The little kids ask me because I’m good at Legos.” They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

What does power look like?:

We began by inviting the children to draw pictures of power, knowing that when children represent an idea in a range of “languages” or art media, their understandings deepen and expand. “Think about power,” said Kendra. “What do you think ‘power’ means? What does power look like? Take a few minutes to make a drawing that shows what power is.”

As children finished their drawings, we gathered for a meeting to look at the drawings together. The drawings represented a range of understandings of power: a tornado, love spilling over as hearts, forceful and fierce individuals, exclusion, cartoon superheroes, political power.

On being powerless (in one of the post-Legotown trading games):

When the teaching staff met to reflect on the Lego trading game, we were struck by the ways the children had come face-to-face with the frustration, anger, and hopelessness that come with being on the outside of power and privilege. During the trading game, a couple of children simply gave up, while others waited passively for someone to give them valuable pieces. Drew said, “I stopped trading because the same people were winning. I just gave up.” In the game, the children could experience what they’d not been able to acknowledge in Legotown: When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt.

On system unfairness vs. individual unfairness:

To make sense of the sting of this disenfranchisement, most of the children cast Liam and Kyla as “mean,” trying to “make people feel bad.” They were unable or unwilling to see that the rules of the game — which mirrored the rules of our capitalist meritocracy — were a setup for winning and losing. Playing by the rules led to a few folks winning big and most folks falling further and further behind. The game created a classic case of cognitive disequilibrium: Either the system is skewed and unfair, or the winners played unfairly. To resolve this by deciding that the system is unfair would call everything into question; young children are committed to rules and rule-making as a way to organize a community, and it is wildly unsettling to acknowledge that rules can have built-in inequities. So most of the children resolved their disequilibrium by clinging to the belief that the winners were ruthless — despite clear evidence of Liam and Kyla’s compassionate generosity.

On ownership (which, by the way, illustrates the radical and difficult departure that projects like LibriVox force us to confront, and why public domain – renouncing ownership – is so much more radical than creative commons – which just defines new rules of ownership):

In their reflections, the children articulated several shared theories about how ownership is conferred.

* If I buy it, I own it:

Sophia: “She owns the lavender balls because she makes them, but if I buy it, then it’s mine.”

* If I receive it as a gift, I own it:

Marlowe: “My mom bought this book for me because she thought it would be a good reading book for me. I know I own it because my mom bought it and she’s my mom and she gave it to me.”

* If I make it myself, I own it:

Sophie: “I sewed this pillow myself with things that my teacher gave me, like stuffing and fabric. I sewed it and it turned into my pillow because it’s something I made instead of something I got at the store.”

* If it has my name on it, I own it:

Alex: “My teacher made this pillow for me and it has my name on it.”

Kendra: “If I put my name on it, would I own it?”

Alex: “Well, Miss S. made it for me… but if your name was on it, then you would own it.”

Sophie: “Kendra, don’t put your name on it, OK?”

* If I own it, I make the rules about it:

Alejandro: “I own this computer, because my grandpa gave it to me. I lend it to my friends so that they can play with it. But I make the rules about it.”

Teachers impose the Bolshevik Revolution, to build New Legotown:

We invited the children to work in small, collaborative teams to build Pike Place Market with Legos. We set up this work to emphasize negotiated decision-making, collaboration, and collectivity. We wanted the children to practice the big ideas we’d been exploring. We wanted Lego Pike Place Market to be an experience of group effort and shared ownership: If Legotown was an embodiment of individualism, Lego Pike Place Market would be an experiment in collectivity and consensus.

Kids start sounding like zombie-versions of Newt Gingrich’s worst nightmare:

From our conversations, several themes emerged.

* Collectivity is a good thing:

“You get to build and you have a lot of fun and people get to build onto your structure with you, and it doesn’t have to be the same way as when you left it…. A house is good because it is a community house.”

* Personal expression matters:

“It’s important that the little Lego plastic person has some identity. Lego houses might be all the same except for the people. A kid should have their own Lego character to live in the house so it makes the house different.”

* Shared power is a valued goal:

“It’s important to have the same amount of power as other people over your building. And it’s important to have the same priorities.”

“Before, it was the older kids who had the power because they used Legos most. Little kids have more rights now than they used to and older kids have half the rights.”

* Moderation and equal access to resources are things to strive for:

“We should have equal houses. They should be standard sizes…. We should all just have the same number of pieces, like 15 or 28 pieces.”

Teachers get excited by the raw clay of Hobbesian childhood they have molded, through idealism and power structure management, into paragons of Rawlsian enlightenment:

As teachers, we were excited by these comments. The children gave voice to the value that collectivity is a solid, energizing way to organize a community — and that it requires power-sharing, equal access to resources, and trust in the other participants.

Paradise, built and achieved:

From this framework, the children made a number of specific proposals for rules about Legos, engaged in some collegial debate about those proposals, and worked through their differing suggestions until they reached consensus about three core agreements:

*All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures. But only the builder or people who have her or his permission are allowed to change a structure.
*Lego people can be saved only by a “team” of kids, not by individuals.
*All structures will be standard sizes.

With these three agreements — which distilled months of social justice exploration into a few simple tenets of community use of resources — we returned the Legos to their place of honor in the classroom.

A fascinating story, and one I need to think about more. It’s very relevant to life in places like LibriVox, I think, and I’m not sure why I am reacting with at least some negative cynicism. Maybe because one power-structures not examined is the relationship between kids and teachers? Maybe because the kids didn’t choose to participate in this experiment? Anyway, why do I not celebrate this experience, which mirrors in some ways the collectivist-do-goodness that underlies a project like LibriVox? To ponder more.

Hmm, maybe I am just having a bad day? Any thoughts on this from yon readers?

[this comes via mike migurski]


  1. mir mir 2008-02-21

    I am definitely a wee but drunk but it sounds to me like you disagree with it because unlike an individualized utopia, it actually is an attempt to produce a feeling of collectivist utopia.

    Don’t forget that individual achievement ( remember all those gold stars on your papers you did or did not receive in grade school) is as much a social engineered aspect of grade school, as is deciding that everyone should be able to collectively decide on Lego structure sizes. I mean, I have to agree making all the houses the same size sounds a bit reductive, but the kids are 8.

    Neither vision is perfect; the idea of rights based society where the individual is paramount, or a collective where the needs of the community can sometimes overwhelm the will of a sole person. But it is important to realize that in all your however many years, the idea of individual achievement was first implemented at grade school – yours, mine, basically everyone’s.

    Okay, going to go ponder some more. I like you point that the teachers never question their role. Teachers never question that – it’s the most sacred cow of all the cows.

  2. mir mir 2008-02-21

    oh yeah, and also is this not just ‘Lord of the Flies’ with interlocking pieces? maybe that’s basically the thing that you object to, the notion that children are basically little brutes. Part of the burden of education is an attempt to civilize them. It depends on whether you appreciate the development of a capitalist ethic as a civilizing practice or whether you want to obtain a corps of young pioneers, in either respect one has to “raise” them right??

    That is a bit scary, but that’s why education is scary, period.

  3. Hugh Hugh 2008-02-21

    hey the one significant achievement in my life is LibriVox, which is a collective utopian’s wet dream, or at least I think so….

    but no I think it was the word “meritocracy” that set me off. or all the “meetings.” or the artificialness. or something. i don’t know either.

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