What Teachers and Parents Can Learn from The Lego Movie

As those of us with Lego-obsessed children know, a Lego set is a double-edged invitation. You can create an awesome replica of a familiar story or film scene with easy-to-follow instructions, and you can use the bricks to build, well, whatever you want, however weird, useless, or oddly juxtaposed the result (Cinderella trapped with Darth Vader in a castle that is part Hogwarts, part Death Star, and part Little Friends Dolphin Cruise Ship? Sure why not). I know families who put the instructions-based final product up on a shelf (the only way to preserve it, short of crazy glue). Otherwise, those elaborate final products smash as soon as a child grabs them in anticipation of play. The smashing, we have to think, is part of the design.

The Lego Movie takes this double-edged-ness to a question at the heart of parenting and teaching: Should we aim at creating adults who can change the world, or who can fit in to the world-as-is? I wrestle with this question in my own classrooms and with my kids, especially these days, living in what Chris Gallagher has called the age of quantification in education: teacher-proof and child-proof classrooms, a widespread sense that if it isn’t measurable, it must not be valuable.

The movie makes clear that adults believe in the instruction-following world as-is. The adult in the film is obsessed with this world, to the detriment of All That Is Good — freedom, creativity, cross-cultural connection, childhood itself. I couldn’t help but see in him a personification of education these days – our focus on test-scores, assessment, standards, ranking and comparison, as well as a correlating misunderstanding of the importance of play (at one point in the film, a boy confronts this adult: “But they are toys! The box says they’re for ages 8 – 14.” “That’s just a suggestion,” the adult says, in a sheepish rationalization for the perfect Lego city he has constructed and the signs – “Do not touch” — he has posted to protect it.) This is where the age of quantification leads, and the movie is adamant: it is not where we want to go.

All of this made me think. I often hear parents justifying kids’ misery over homework: “He has to get used to it. When he grows up he’s going to have to learn to follow directions, do what the boss wants.” Like the adult in The Lego Movie, arrested at age 8 -14 but in precisely the wrong way, we conceptualize adulthood as success at instruction-following – as submission to authority, a grown-up version of “because I say so.” I remember hearing a speaker at a Challenge Success event talk about his approach to life, summed up as “I don’t have to, I get to.” His point was that even our duties and obligations are opportunities — to learn, to express ourselves, to forward a life we love. Without this mindset, life can seem like drudgery and childhood might reasonably be seen as preparation for it.

Sometimes when I question the necessity of homework, a parent will shoot back: “So you’re saying we should just let kids do whatever they want?” The hippy-dippy part of me wants to answer “yes” but I know that isn’t quite right either. The gray area I’m searching for here is hard to articulate, but the film gets it just right: yes, it celebrates the importance of original creation and play, and yes it is a powerful critique of the age of quantification in schools. But we’re also encouraged to admire the adult’s ability to build by following the rules, and to see that the adult’s facility with the instruction booklets sets a powerful stage for the kid’s imagination to soar.

The point is not that both are equally valuable or that you have to learn to “follow rules before you can break them.” The pre-set nature of the Lego set is in the service of creativity. Creativity – originality, problem-solving, self-expression – is the end goal, not a perfect replica of the Death Star. We can’t quantify or measure those larger goals. We can’t capture them in a set of learning outcomes or a Legos instruction booklet. They are a double-decker Lego couch, the dumbest idea any of the characters in the movie have ever seen, until it’s the very thing that saves them. We may not be able to measure the value of that double-decker couch, but we need to value it nonetheless.

Just as the movie challenges us to remember the importance of creativity, it also challenges us to see creativity in a more complex light. It’s not simply a matter of parents and teachers getting out of the way. In fact, our role as leaders and collaborators is pretty important. Yesterday, my son and a friend created a hamster habitat out of cardboard boxes and scotch tape. It was wonderful and creative, and it was almost all my idea. When my son suggested that we look on Amazon for a bigger hamster cage (Spike was bored, he contended), I countered that we could make one. My son shook his head: How? I pointed them to cardboard boxes in the garage. The project took off, but later stalled again, until I suggested cutting little doorways for Spike to crawl through, and got out the scissors. This suggestion inspired other ideas. They worked happily for over an hour. The end result is pretty cool, and it does not look as I imagined. There are tunnels and tiny “secret rooms” for Spike to explore and many safety precautions, to keep Spike from escaping.

So I didn’t make the hamster habitat, or direct it, but it wouldn’t have happened without me either. Collaboration of this kind, with kids and with students, is tricky. We have more knowledge and experience than they do and thus it’s easy for us to take over, and for them to look to us to solve problems along the way. But like the reformed adult in the Lego Movie, our role is to set the stage, not manage or control it. Stage-setting is hard work: it requires both a willingness to let go of control and a sense of vision, an attention to potential final results.

Legos can be a model for us: they direct toward a particular path, and they invite, even demand, that kids veer of it. As a teacher this week, I want to embody this duality –to have a vision of where students need to be, with a plan for how to get them there, and to be open to where students actually go with the materials I present. I would love to hear from you about how you accomplish this balance. Write me at jstrainor@gmail.com

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is the author of “Rethinking Racism,” (Southern Illinois University Press), as well as several essays on education. She teaches in the English department at San Francisco State University, and lives with her family in the SF Bay Area.

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