The two sides of LEGO

LEGO bricks

Source Wikipedia: LEGO bricks.

When I read the article about LEGO becoming ‘increasingly girly’ on Washington Post I was surprised. I have noticed the trend but haven’t paid that much attention to it until now. I don’t understand why a toy that both genders can enjoy has to choose sides.

When I was a teacher at a comprehensive school in Helsinki, the Technology lessons in that school were built around LEGO Mindstorms. In short, with the LEGO Mindstorms you can build and program robots, constructions etc., from the LEGO bricks (standard and special ones). The robot becomes ‘alive’ through a ‘central unit’ (back then it was RCX, now EV3), which can be attached to the robot. With the Mindstorms program on your computer, you can make a program for your robot and transfer it to the EV3 unit. This concept of building and programming your own designs was really the reason why technology lessons were so popular among all the students in that school.

Screenshot  from LEGO Mindstorms webpage.

Screenshot from LEGO Mindstorms webpage.

And why did I like teaching with LEGOs so much?

  • They are such a great way to teach children Technology and Computer Science. At first students build something, then they make a program for their design and afterwards they test/debug/rebuild their design.
  • (Almost) all the children are familiar with LEGOs or at least learn to work with them quickly.
  • The only limitation for a class is your imagination (and the amount of LEGO bricks, perhaps).
  •  It is easy to make the class appealing and interesting for both girls and boys.
  • The child in you wakes up as well and you want to try, experiment, design and play with your students.

I think sometimes I was more enthusiastic to build and program than my students. But my enthusiasm was contagious. Because the first steps of building and designing are so inviting and easy to take with the LEGO Mindstorms, the snowball rolls down the hill effortlessly from there on.

The method I used in my technology class was simple. First, I chose a topic or a concept I wanted/needed to teach to the students (there was no Technology curriculum so we, the technology teachers, used Computer Science curriculum or our imagination to plan the lessons) and then I decided how to use the LEGOs to reach the educational goal. The assignments were the same for boys and girls; sometimes girls built stables for ponies and boys fortresses, though. But the (Computer Science) concepts that I wanted to teach needed to be embedded (correctly), regardless the design.

Never did I hear the girls complain that there were no pink bricks to build from.

LEGO brochures

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I don’t understand why LEGO has chosen such a different approach in educational solutions to what they are promoting at the toy sector. At Bett 2014 I had a chance to talk with someone from the LEGO Mindstorms Education team and test their latest products. It has been five years since the last time I taught with LEGOs and the development is staggering. Whatever the development steps and direction for the future of LEGO Education are, nowhere on their website or in their brochures did I spot gender specific products. In the pictures, women, men, girls and boys are teaching and learning with the same bricks, constructions and tools. The brochures also provide ideas to tackle with the learning goals of the new 2014 National Curriculum in UK. I don’t see gender specific suggestions there either.

This is no defense speech for LEGO. I was merely surprised and disappointed to realize that LEGO’s other foot has gotten dirty. But I also wanted to remind you of the existence of the other foot.

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