Brandon W. Hawk

Teaching with Lego

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Recently, because of my new commute, I found and have been listening to the backlog of episodes of the WNYC podcast Note to Self (formerly New Tech City). According to the show’s website, “Host Manoush Zomorodi talks with everyone from big name techies to elementary school teachers about the effects of technology on our lives, in a quest for the smart choices that will help you think and live better”–and the show’s frequent catchphrase tell us that it’s about “finding balance in the digital age.” I’ve been enjoying the podcast so much that I’ve also begun thinking about how to incorporate it into my classes; for example, I assigned this episode about reading in the digital age to students in two of my courses.*

Last week, on my morning drive, I listened to one of the most recent episodes, aired August 19, 2015, titled “LEGO Kits and Your Creative Soul.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how this could be incorporated into my literature courses. So I took a risk and tried something new, perhaps a little wacky, on the second day of class in two of my courses. At the very start of class, I produced a box of around 300 Lego pieces and told students that they had ten to fifteen minutes to free-build with them while thinking about the nature of creativity and the creative process. The goal was to use it as an object lesson, to let them build and think (or let their minds wander while being creative), then to talk about creativity, art, and criticism before discussing the daily reading, this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro.

They were all unsure. There was some nervous laughter. One student gave me such a look of confusion and hesitation that I was sure she saw me sprout a second head. When I slowly poured out the Lego pieces onto the desk at the front of the room, it took around twenty seconds before any students moved. Then, slowly, they walked to the front: one or two at first, then more following. They all took a handful and returned to their desks, and the creativity began.

As they got more comfortable, students talked about what they worked on. In one class, I heard a couple discussing creativity, and the keyword “imagination” emerged. Some joked with each other about the activity, their creations. After a few minutes, they started looking at what pieces their neighbors had, swapping with each other, talking about “stealing” and “sharing,” some students joining their pieces together into a single creation.

Eventually, when they had exhausted their own supply, students returned to the remaining pieces still on the desk at the front of the room. Some grabbed pieces indiscriminately, while others were more strategic and circumspect, looking for particular pieces that would work for their creations, a few repeatedly returning.

The conversations afterward unfolded into brainstorming ideas, questions, examples of art and other creations, my own brief survey of how many have creative hobbies and what they are, and challenges to how we think about creativity, imagination, and art. I asked my leading questions and gained a hoard of insightful answers.

What did you build? How would you describe your project? I wanted them to take some first steps toward both describing and interpreting their creations, even if they were abstract. Some had definite answers, while a few admitted that they didn’t know. Among the identified creations, they had built a performance stage, several rocket ships (one had built-in wi-fi), a chameleon, a dog-thing, a room with a window, a functional parking garage gate, a wizard (but without any minifigure pieces), a boat, the world’s tallest tower (“in a micro-world”), a knight, his horse, and a ship for them to go on (the last three by a thee-student team).

What was your process? Some said that they just started putting pieces together until something emerged. Others talked about working with whatever they had in front of them until they had some a creation. Some talked about how certain pieces just seemed to fit together somehow, so they started with those and went from their. A few based their creations on a single centerpiece (like a window). One student said that he spent all his time just trying to create the most stable, dense creation, one that wouldn’t (or couldn’t) fall apart.

What does this reveal about the creative process? About art in general? Ultimately, this led to a discussion about (seeming) complexity and simplicity as related (or not) to effort or lack of it; the nature of an artistic product in relation to the process; aesthetic and functional creations, or how something can be both; surface-level analysis and paying deeper critical attention. We ranged across examples from visual arts to literature, from metalwork to poetry, from pottery to music. Some admitted the need to start building, assess, take apart, restart, reassess, and repeat until something that made sense came out of it; this part of the conversation led to thinking about how writing often means doing the same. Others acknowledged the process as adaptive, noting that they still hadn’t finished, even as some continued to fiddle, add, and change details as we talked. One astute student, thinking ahead in the class, asked if I had them do this to make a point about the accumulation of a piece of literature like the Bible, which developed over time with lots of accretions.

For my last question about this exercise, I asked: If you were to step back and analyze what you’ve created, how would you start? In both classes, they started by telling me that they would focus on individual pieces: color, shape, size, telling how they fit together. One student said that she would do this “starting from the bottom and going to the top,” in a structural, organized way. Following this, another pointed out the need to go back and forth between analyzing individual pieces and relating them to the whole creation. In one class, one student brought up the significance of perspective to understand the creation, especially the difference between talking about it as the creator or a critic.

Finally, I with the groundwork laid, we were able to shift to a more specific discussion about literature. We didn’t leave behind the Lego activity, but it helped to propel us forward. We had some baselines (generalizations, assumptions, and challenges) for thinking about how to approach creativity, imagination, and art as academic critics. By the end of the class, a few students even acknowledged the usefulness of the Lego activity. And we found that these worked as a bridge to discussing keywords for literary analysis with the ideas posed by Gaiman and Ishiguro.

* One student told me that she liked the episode so much that she subscribed and has been listening to older episodes.

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