Fear and Loathing in Legotown

by Dan H

Dan Talks Like a Daily Mail Reader
Sonia recently posted a link from the Playpen to an article entitled Why We Banned Legos, which narrates the story of a Seattle primary school's troubles with a lego town built by a group of students.

There's a lot in the article that's very interesting. It highlights some things about the way children interact, they way they form hierarchies and the way they can organise remarkably sophisticated projects spontaneously and without supervision.

What I noticed most about it, however, was the deeply scary attitude the people who wrote the article seem to have to their jobs as teachers.

Here's the background: there's this after-school program with 25 kids from an affluent part of Seattle. A group of about eight kids decide to play with the lego, and build up an increasingly large and complex structure which comes to be called “Legotown”. As Legotown gets bigger and more complicated, more kids get involved with it, and of course space and resources become scarce, and some kids wind up not being able to play with the lego, and those who remain onboard with the Legotown project wound up developing an increasingly complicated system for working out what got built, who got to use which pieces, and so on.

The line that initially made me worry about the article was this.
These negotiations gave rise to heated conflict and to insightful conversation. Into their coffee shops and houses, the children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive

Some thoughts.

Thought number one. It is in fact interesting that the children structured their play in a manner which reflects the cultural assumptions of the society in which they live. Interesting, but not terribly surprising.

Thought number two. You believe capitalist society is unjust and oppressive? Are you fucking twelve? In all seriousness, I get that free-market capitalism has its downsides. So does everything. Making sweeping generalisations about complex systems just makes you sound like a moron.

Thought number three. What the fuck do you mean “a society that we teachers believe to be unjust”? What does the one have to do with the other? You believe capitalism is bad – great, that's your opinion, but it is most certainly nothing to do with your job. I, as it happens, am a teacher as well. I believe that there is no such thing as God or an afterlife. This is my opinion as an atheist. If I were to start using my classroom to advocate my religious beliefs I would be grossly abusing my position as a teacher, as well as being extraordinarily disrespectful to my students and their families.

If you think that promoting a specific political doctrine is part of your job as a teacher, you need to stop teaching. Now.

Anyway, Legotown was destroyed by a rogue basketball, and the teachers:
saw the decimation of Lego-town as an opportunity to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded

Now I have no problem with critical evaluation. Critical evaluation is an important life skill. I do, in fact, consider part of my job as a teacher to be teaching my students to critically evaluate things.

But when they say “critical evaluation” they in fact mean:
Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation

So actually they weren't trying to get the students to critically evaluate anything. They were specifically trying to promote a set of values.

This, right here, is what the American Right is afraid of. It's the liberal elite pushing their values onto a generation of schoolkids. It's propaganda in schools and it's all the more creepy because the people writing the article clearly have no idea they're doing it.

The next section of the article talks about the way the kids who had been in charge of Legotown felt about it:
The children denied their power, framing it as benign and neutral, not something actively sought out and maintained. This early conversation helped us see more clearly the children's contradictory thinking about power and authority, laying the groundwork for later exploration.

The irony of this is that the teachers writing the article engage in exactly the same behaviour. Whenever they exerted authority or exercised power in the classroom, they describe it as “discussion” or as “raising issues”. They say quite explicitly:
We didn't want simply to step in as teachers with a new set of rules about how the children could use Legos, exchanging one set of authoritarian rules with another

Except ... well ... they took the damned things away for a start. That was the exercise of power. And all the “discussion” was framed by the teachers, with a specific pedagogical aim – of “promoting a contrasting set of values”.

Again I should point out that I am actually a teacher in real life. Classroom discussion is a fantastically valuable pedagogical tool. It's fantastically valuable because it's a way of getting the students to reach the conclusions you want them to reach. It's like being a magician (indeed, Derren Brown mentions the techniques teachers use in Tricks of the Mind). You're selective about whose ideas you encourage and whose you gloss over, you take suggestions from everybody but only write down the ones you know are right. You guide the discussion towards the conclusion you know it needs to reach and you do it because it's your job and if you do it well, the students don't even notice. It's a technique that's as old as Socrates.

The teachers in the article stress time and again that the “new” Legotown came out of discussion with the students, that nothing was imposed by the teaching staff. If you actually look at the things the students say, however, it is clear that the teachers blithely ignore what the students are saying, in favour of their own pre-formed beliefs about the unjust nature of the Legotown system.

For example:

Carl: "We didn't ‘give' the pieces, we found and shared them."
Lukas: "It's like giving to charity."
Carl: "I don't agree with using words like ‘gave.' Because when someone wants to move in, we find them a platform and bricks and we build them a house and find them windows and a door.”

This is cited by the teachers as evidence of the students “denying their power” and “framing it as something benign and neutral”. But what reason do we have not to take these kids at their word? Ultimately a person denying their power and framing it as something benign and neutral sounds very, very similar to a person who doesn't have any power, or whose power is benign and neutral. It is the teachers who decide that Carl and Lukas (all names changed in original article, for what it's worth) are oppressing the other students. They take it upon themselves to judge the actions of the Legotown builders, and to assign them motivations and to condemn those motivations. They can do this because it is ultimately they who have the authority in the classroom, and not poor old Carl and Lukas, who seem to have been genuinely nice kids who liked to help others.

According to the article, though, Carl and Lucas' descriptions of how they played with the Lego reveals their “contradictory thinking about power and authority”.

The next step in the teachers' “exploration” of these complex issues was a simple trading game designed to “highlight the experience of those who are excluded from power”. Incidentally, notice that the teachers once again use the language of collaboration (they're “exploring” the issues) when in fact the whole exercise was didactic (it was designed to make one, specific point). The idea behind the Lego Trading Game was:
... to create a situation in which a few children would receive unearned power from sheer good luck in choosing Lego bricks with high point values, and then would wield that power with their peers

Again, this speaks volumes about the teachers' own preconceptions about the Legotown situation, and about the “oppressive” nature of class-based capitalist society. Once again the phrase “are you fucking twelve?” springs to mind.

The teachers tell us that this game is a “simple game about complicated issues” and they're dead right. The problem is that it's a gross oversimplification of those complex issues.

I should stress here that I'm a liberal. I believe in the welfare state, the NHS, and the State School System. I believe people who earn more money should pay higher taxes and that society has a moral obligation to support those who are unable to support themselves. I believe that there are inequalities in society that need to be addressed, and that they need to be addressed both by private individuals and by the state.

That said, the use of the phrase “unearned power from sheer good luck” makes me want to punch somebody.

Yes, success contains an element of good fortune. JK Rowling is several hundred times richer than most other novelists, I certainly don't think she writes a hundred times better. On the other hand I do (and this might come as a surprise to those who have read my writings on the subject) believe that she deserves her success. I may personally think her books are awful, but she still wrote them, they're still her ideas and she still put her time and effort into creating them.

There is a certain class of idiot who genuinely believes that the rich and successful get that way by nothing but good luck, who believe that therefore any inequality whatsoever in the division of wealth or power is by definition an injustice. Of course there's also class of idiot who believes that the rich and successful get that way by nothing but hard work and that therefore social injustice cannot exist. These two types of moron feed off each other in a particularly annoying way, both of them presenting a trite, oversimplified version of a complex socio-economic reality.

It's also a trite, oversimplified version of the situation in Legotown. The kids in charge of Legotown didn't have “unearned power” through “sheer luck”. They had positions of leadership which they had, in fact, earned. The kids who started Legotown had taken on responsibilities. They had organised a project which had become popular and successful, they had gone out of their way to involve other children in the project, and to help to make them a part of it. They dealt sensibly with the real problems of a limited pool of resources. Their authority within Legotown came as a direct result of their contributing to Legotown.

The rules of the Lego Trading Game were clearly based on the Teachers' understanding of the capitalist economic system. An understanding which is woefully inadequate. The rules were these: each student got to pick ten coloured Legos. The teachers secretly assigned points values to the Legos, and then told the students to trade them in an effort to gain “as many points as possible”. After trading, the students with the most points got to propose new rules, and the trading started again.

Now I know I'm probably showing my gaming-geek colours too clearly here, but the initial setup of the Lego Trading Game was so oversimplified that it actually didn't work as a game. Because each Lego block had a fixed, objectively defined points value, any trading was zero-sum. It was impossible within the rules of the game for any trade to be made that benefited both sides. Which, as a model of a capitalist meritocracy could be considered a bit of a flaw.

Now it happened that when the bricks were being passed around, a kid called Liam chose all the green bricks (because green was his favourite colour). Since green was the rarest colour, it was also the most valuable. This basically meant that Liam had won before the game started. Here's what the other kids said:
Drew: "This isn't fair! Liam won't trade any green, I bet, so what's the point? What if you just want to quit?"

Carl: "I don't want to play this game. I'll just wait for Liam to give me a green. If he doesn't, it's hopeless."

Notice that the kids immediately spot the gigantic gaping flaws in the game. I'll come back to this later but the kids in this class frequently display a significantly better understanding of economics than their own teachers.

Liam, funnily enough, wins the first round. He now gets to propose a rule for the second round.

It's worth bearing in mind that the point of this game is to highlight the inequalities in the concept of private ownership. It's important to remember that the idea was that by allowing the winners to make the rules, the game would highlight the unfairness of the capitalist system that the children were unconsciously supporting.

Here's the rule Liam introduced:

"You have to trade at least one piece. That's a good rule because if you have a high score at the beginning, you wouldn't have to trade, and that's not fair."

That's right folks, the guy who had gained the “unearned power” by “sheer luck” in the game that was designed to model the injustices of a capitalist society used his power to make the game fairer for other people.

Notice that despite this the teachers, whose teaching style is all about exploration and discussion and critical examination never once stop and wonder if maybe, just maybe they were wrong. No, they clung to their preconceptions in the face of overwhelming evidence that in the microcosm of the classroom, as in the macrocosm of the real world, their beliefs were a pile of horseshit.

They played another round of the game, with Liam winning again, with two other students finishing in second and third place.

Here's the students' reaction to the second round of the game:

Drew: "Liam, you don't have to brag in people's faces."

Carl: "The winner would stomp his feet and go ‘Yes' in the face of people. It felt kind of mean."

Liam: "I was happy! I wasn't trying to stomp in people's faces."

Carl: "I don't like that winners make new rules. People make rules that are only in their advantage. They could have written it simpler that said, ‘Only I win.'"

Juliet: "Because they wanted to win and make other people feel bad."

Kyla: "I wasn't trying to make other people feel bad. I felt bad when people felt bad, so I tried to make a rule that would make them feel better. It was fun to make up the rule — like a treat, to be one of only three people out of the whole group.

And here's the teacher's analysis of that reaction:

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." ...

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.

Except, that's clearly complete fucking bollocks. Drew and Carl both clearly and explicitly identify the fact that the game is unwinnable. Carl clearly identifies that the system of allowing the winners to make new rules is flawed. He also identifies the fact that it is impossible for a player in the game to improve their position without relying on charity from people who have more than they do.

The teachers then go on to smugly observe that:

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.

Except that aside from the teachers' naïve assertions there is no reason to view the Deliberately Unfair Block Trading Game as being remotely similar to either a capitalist economy or the old Legotown. Worse, it's an unthinking, naïve parody of capitalist economy, designed by people too stupid and immature to get beyond the idea that it's unfair for some people to be rich when other people aren't.

It is, in short, pathetic.

There follows some five months of “social justice exploration” in which the students talk about their understanding of power and ownership, and visit a market. Finally the teachers decide that it is time to reinstate 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 offered the children some guidelines to steer them into a new way of interacting with each other and with the Legos: "Create teams of two or three people, decide as a team on some element of Pike Place Market that you'll build, and then start constructing.

Once again, if you would scroll upwards, kind reader, you might remember the teachers talking about the fact that:
We didn't want simply to step in as teachers with a new set of rules about how the children could use Legos, exchanging one set of authoritarian rules with another

Except that is exactly what they fucking did. Yes, they use terms like “invite” and “suggest” and “guidelines” - just like Carl and Lukas talked about “helping” other students to “find” Legos. Again, I'm a teacher myself, I know how this works. When I give students “guidelines” I expect them to follow those guidelines to the fucking letter. When I “suggest” the students do something I expect them to do it. When I “invite” a student to perform a task I expect it to be performed.

A classroom is hierarchical. There is an implicit power imbalance between a teacher and his or her pupils which no amount of mealy-mouthed talk of “democratic participation” can redress.

The original Legotown was designed, conceived, and managed entirely by the students. It contained fire-stations and airstrips, it was run in a manner which was entirely functional, but which happened not to fit with their teachers' political ideology. The restructured Legotown was gutted and stripped down to fit in with somebody's reactionary idea of “fairness.”

The new rules of Legotown were these:
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.

None of these rules are intrinsically “better” or more “democratic” than the original system. Neither are they fairer. Worse, they create the illusion of fairness in much the same way as flat rate taxation.

The three rules that the children “collaboratively” created for Legotown do not, in reality, mean anything. They don't – for example – address the question of who gets the “cool” pieces, which was part of the problem with the whole thing to begin with. Nor do they address the concerns of kids who might want to play with Lego without contributing to Legotown. Nor do they actually address the fact that there are a limited number of blocks an an unlimited number of things people might want to build with them. Those issues will have to be addressed by either the already-existing hierarchy of kids or by the teachers using those utterly non-authoritarian “guidelines” and “suggestions” to make sure everybody plays fair.

The thing that I find most infuriating, though, is rule number three: all structures will be standard sizes.

That isn't “fair”. That isn't “democratic”. It's puerile. It's exactly the kind of knee-jerk myopic crap that conservatives accuse liberals of pedalling, and I insist we don't.

A common criticism that conservatives make of liberals and socialists is the idea that we believe that if you have ten people and nine chairs, everybody should sit on the floor. We don't. Or I thought we didn't.

The original, “bad” version of Legotown embraced some very complex economic ideas. A kid called Drew built a fire station, which – owing to the need to be big enough for four – was bigger than every other house in Legotown. Drew got “more” than the other kids, but the overall benefit of the town having a fire station was worth the seeming inequality. A kid called Oliver built an airstrip which used an above-average number of “cool pieces” and defended the requirement on the grounds that other people would be able to use the airstrip as well. This required exactly the kind of negotiation and collective decision-making that the teachers spent five months trying to teach.

What the kids seemed to instinctively understand, and their teachers seemed to stubbornly ignore, was that fairness and equality are not a matter of simply dividing the total number of blocks by the total number of students. Forcing everybody to make all their buildings the same size doesn't make things fairer. It makes them look fairer, but uniformity is not equality. If Drew needs more space to make his fire station, he should have it, because the alternative is that he doesn't get to play and that isn't actually fair at all. Suggesting it's unfair for some kids to have bigger buildings than others is like suggesting that it's unfair for fat kids to wear bigger clothes.

The article ends on this self-congratulatory note:
We believe that educators have a responsibility to pay close attention to the themes, theories, and values that children use to anchor their play. Then we can interact with those worldviews, using play to instill the values of equality and democracy.

I believe that I, as an educator, have a responsibility to respect the beliefs and cultures of my students. I believe that it is most certainly not my place to push my political ideology on anybody. Furthermore I believe that for teachers to use their privileged access to impressionable children to further a political agenda is anything but democratic.
Themes: Topical

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Comments (go to latest)
Rude Cyrus at 01:28 on 2009-07-22
Great article, Dan.

The Legotown article was a bit ambiguous as to why the eight children were excluding other kids: was it because there wasn't enough space and resources, or were they simply being selfish? In the former case, I'd buy more legos and move to a bigger space; in the latter, I'd explain that everyone who wanted to build should get a turn, as it's only fair.

I love that "all structures will be standard sizes" rule. Could you imagine an actual town that stuck to that rule? Not only would it be the most boring town on earth, but the inhabitants would have a lot of problems, what with the police stations, fire departments, and hospitals all the same size.
Rami at 04:57 on 2009-07-22
It was impossible within the rules of the game for any trade to be made that benefited both sides

Oh. My. God. And this was meant to be some sort of model of the real, capitalist world? A model deliberately built on the opposite assumption to the economic system as it stands?

Part of me wants to go to Seattle and let the city's Board of Education know the kind of Fail in charge of their classrooms. Another part of me is terrified that if this is happening in a well-off school in Seattle, what's happening in inner-city DC?
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 05:20 on 2009-07-22
Excellent analysis as always.

The thing that kids me is that these kids were doing something good: they took unused toys and built something fabulous and creative and they included at least most of the class. When their town was destroyed, a deeply traumatic event to the builders, rather than, you know, being caretakers and soothing their anguish and encouraging the kids to rebuild (maybe taking the opportunity to inject that all the kids should get a hand in building it this time), those kids got their toys taken away from them like they'd done something wrong.

Honestly, by the time I got to that point in the article, I thought the teachers were going to engineer a little "basketball accident" of their own before coincidence stepped in. From the article it seemed like the legos (a prime source of pleasure for these kids who have to spend all afternoon 5 days a week there) were removed for a couple of months so that the teachers could run their little social experiment.

Seems to me that this whole thing could have been avoided if the teachers had interceded with one simple rule in old Legotown: if a kid wants to join, you have to at least give him the blocks necessary to build a basic house. You'd have to watch out to make sure kids weren't trying to intimidate other kids into leaving Legotown, but since these seem to be some pretty nice kids to start with (/Both/ kid's rules tried to make the trading game more fair, even though the kids explicitly stated that they knew the game could be even more rigged by a kid making up an arbitrary rule that would benefit him/her. I can't get over how the teachers could just brush over that), I think it could be worked out.

And if this after-school program is an "affluent" area, just ask the parents to donate a dollar or two to buy the kids some more legos. I'd think encouraging creativity and group play would be more important at their age than teaching kids (flawed) capitalism.
Arthur B at 07:08 on 2009-07-22
It's worth pointing out that one of the co-authors is "the mentor teacher at Hilltop, working alongside teachers to support their learning abut the pedagogy inspired by the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy." (An extensive - but not neutral - Wikipedia article on the Reggio Emilia approach to education is here.)

The area of Reggio Emilia itself has a long, strong socialist tradition, and has been a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party (or the Party of the Democratic Left, as they were known after 1990) for ages - to the extent that they haven't had a non-Communist administration in the town hall since World War II. Which doesn't mean that their educational philosophy is inherently anticapitalist, but at the same time you can see why anticapitalist sorts might be keen to promote said philosophy for reasons above and beyond the fact that it seems fairly effective.

Ironically, of course, part of the reason that the quality of public services in Reggio Emilia is so high is that it's actually a very affluent region of Italy, and since the populace is generally willing to pay a high rate of income tax the area is able to fund its services very well indeed. So everyone is better off as a result... but only because the region drew the green bricks at the start of the game.
Guy at 07:52 on 2009-07-22
Good article and good analysis of the flaws in the original. I think the most egregious thing in the original for me was the way the teachers were so concerned about drawing out the hidden power structures in the children's relationship with the Lego (and there did seem to be something generally interesting in the dynamics of that... playing with the Lego became much more attractive to the other children once the "original builders" had got Legotown going... but to what extent does this give those "original builders" the right to limit the access of "new builders" to the remaining stock of Lego?) but, as you point out, they seem to be absolutely blind to the obvious fact that the biggest power imbalance in the situation is between the teachers and the children. I guess... I have a bit of a different attitude to the teaching of "values" than you do but also very different to what these teachers do... I guess one of the big differences between teaching adults and teaching young people is that for the most part an adult's values are already close to fully-formed when they step into your classroom, so as a teacher you basically want to stay out of the way of that kind of stuff, except to the extent that it actually overlaps with your subject matter (I teach sociology which makes for some difficult questions about some of this stuff... but I make a real effort to be as "values-neutral" as I can and also to push the students to allow space for people who disagree to all get a chance to speak and so on... it's not easy and I don't think I always get it right but I think I do pretty well by comparison to some of the flagrant propagandising I see happening in other people's courses... anyway...) ...stay away from the hot potatoes and just teach your subject matter. With young children, though, because their value systems aren't even close to fully formed, nothing you can do is really values-neutral. Letting the older kids exclude the younger kids from playing with Lego carries a message; forcing the older kids to let the younger kids play with at least some of the Lego sends a message; forcing the older players to dismantle their own buildings so that the younger players can have equal access to the cool pieces sends a message. Everything's a message - one way or another, you convey something about your own values to the children by the way that you respond to them. What I would probably agree with the original Lego article authors about is that this puts any teacher working with children in a position of very serious responsibility, especially when it comes to dealing with conflicts that arise among the children. What I would disagree with them very strongly about, is that a proper way to adopt that responsibility is to embark on an extensive campaign of propagandising the children into a very particular niche ideological position all the while trumpeting how "collaborative" &c your brainwashing processes are. I think there is a genuine philosophical or ethical problem here in that you can't, as you can with adult students, sidestep the question of values entirely, even if you wanted to, and it might not even be desirable to try - we all got our childhood influences from somewhere, and part of the reason I feel I was able to pick out the adults whose opinions I couldn't trust was that I'd been taught something different by adults I felt I could trust - but the answer is probably as fraught as the question of what good values are is itself.
Dan H at 11:17 on 2009-07-22
Everything's a message - one way or another, you convey something about your own values to the children by the way that you respond to them

That's very true, and I certainly wouldn't advocate a totally laissez-faire approach. As you say, letting the older kids take the Legos away from the younger kids would have been deeply problematic too.

The thing that infuriates me most about the whole thing is that the teachers clearly didn't have a clue what they were doing and that therefore whatever actually happened in the classroom, they saw it as a success for their methods.

For what it's worth, I work in an international school, so the whole values issue is a *complete* minefield. Never mind questions about property and ownership, statements like "Osama bin Laden is a bad person" and "the Government shouldn't shoot you for criticizing it" are by no means uncontroversial.
Dan H at 11:30 on 2009-07-22
Oh. My. God. And this was meant to be some sort of model of the real, capitalist world? A model deliberately built on the opposite assumption to the economic system as it stands?

To be totally fair to the teachers, I might be wrong about the specifics of the game, but as it's described that seems to be how it works. I'm pretty sure the teachers considered it a good model because it included the idea of rarity value, and because it produced unequal distributions of wealth, and allowed the powerful to cement their own power. I don't think they deliberately built the game so that all trades were zero-sum. I think that was just stupidity.

The tragic thing is that it would have been (bad pun alert) child's play to produce a near-identical game that would have been just as simple as the one they chose, and have more accurately modeled a capitalist system. For example, they could have had a situation where the winner was the person who got the most blocks of different colours (or the most blocks of the same colour) thereby creating a situation where different resources had different values to different people (which, again, is sort of how capitalism works - you have two cows and so on). It would still have highlighted a lot of the problems with a capitalist system, because people would still have had unequal starting hands, and people who started in stronger positions would have had an unfair advantage.

As it is, they might as well have replaced the trading game with "we smacked all of the students around the back of the head, and this allowed them to experience the *pain* of disenfranchisement".
Dan H at 11:42 on 2009-07-22
Part of me wants to go to Seattle and let the city's Board of Education know the kind of Fail in charge of their classrooms. Another part of me is terrified that if this is happening in a well-off school in Seattle, what's happening in inner-city DC?

Sorry for the triple post:

I strongly suspect, in fact, that inner-city DC is fine. It's extremely easy to be anticapitalist when you live in an affluent suburb and make enough money that you don't actually have to wonder about where it comes from. There's no way that a bunch of inner-city kids would buy this kind of shit.

In fact, their whole "collectivist" approach is rooted in the assumptions of affluence. It's based around the unquestioned assumption that there will always be enough for everybody, which is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make if you're in a posh school in Seattle, but not elsewhere. When you have three giant bins of lego between thirty kids you can have equal distribution of resources. When you have one small box between forty, you can't.
Rami at 14:37 on 2009-07-22
a situation where different resources had different values to different people... sort of how capitalism works

Yep. That's one of the core ideas behind free-market economics -- it would have made so much more sense!

To respond to your other point, though -- it's not the specifics of their "collectivist" or "anticapitalist" approach that concerns me. It's their terrifyingly narrow domain of understanding. If well-off teachers employed at a posh school (which tends to imply high teacher standards and therefore numerous letters after each employee's name) are so unaware of the broader economic situation, I would assume a poor teacher employed at an underfunded state school would be too. And neither, therefore, can really pass on such an understanding to their kids.

Andy G at 14:55 on 2009-07-22
I would assume a poor teacher employed at an underfunded state school would be too. And neither, therefore, can really pass on such an understanding to their kids.

Understanding of what?
Wardog at 15:13 on 2009-07-22
I love that "all structures will be standard sizes" rule. Could you imagine an actual town that stuck to that rule? Not only would it be the most boring town on earth, but the inhabitants would have a lot of problems, what with the police stations, fire departments, and hospitals all the same size.

Yes. It's Milton Keynes.
Rami at 15:33 on 2009-07-22
Understanding of what?
Oh, sorry, thought I'd been clearer. Understanding of economics and The System We Live In 101.
Andy G at 15:40 on 2009-07-22
Oh, sorry, thought I'd been clearer. Understanding of economics and The System We Live In 101.

Well, as Dan says, it's not really the role of (primary school) teachers to pass that kind of thing on, and it'd be impossible to teach kids economics anyway ... except in the sense in which they could pick it up from the world around them anyway, and kids from poorer backgrounds probably have a BETTER understanding of the economy and politics from their personal experiences.
Andy G at 15:41 on 2009-07-22
* BETTER understanding of this type with regard to the economy and politics from their personal experiences.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 16:25 on 2009-07-22
What a depressing article. It was far more fascinating watching these kids, who all seemed to come into the situation with a good mix of genuine fairness and self-interest, figure out how to build their Legotown based on things they thought were important: cool pieces, cool buildings, practicality (you need air strips and firehouses), individual expression. It sounds like it was an interesting place. And yes, I laughed at the teachers not wanting to just be authoritarian so they took away the Legos for 5 months and then came up with a new plan--and I suspect a new name for the place.

I suspect also that watching this would be different from reading about it. As a kid--and an adult--nothing annoys me more than group projects. I can easily imagine Drew diving into creating the firehouse he envisioned. Being forced to come up with something by committee (following policy size, of course) is just tedious.

Basically, it's two stories. The first is the story of a bunch of kids spontaneously creating something that reflects that kind of organic life. The second is the story of a bunch of teachers using Legos for a classroom experiment. I'll bet the kids were a hell of a lot more attached to imperfect Legotown than the Pikes Peak market.
Rami at 17:10 on 2009-07-22
it's not really the role of (primary school) teachers to pass that kind of thing on
I'm not entirely sure about that -- I think it's an essential component of a teacher's role to teach kids how to get on in real life and I certainly remember being told about sharing and making friends and all that when I was 4 or 5. Using a delusionally-constructed experiment to teach kids about interacting and sharing resources with other people might not help that goal much.
Andy G at 18:29 on 2009-07-22
@ Rami: I was referring more to your suggestion that it was a cause for concern that less-qualified teachers would be less able to convey information about economics to kids from non-middle-class backgrounds. If "economics" is to be interpreted broadly, I think you would also need to consider the socialisation process more broadly than just what is taught in the classroom.
Rami at 19:05 on 2009-07-22
Dammit, clearly I have been too well indoctrinated by the bourgeois system :-( I didn't even question my assumption, equating good pay and qualifications with competency :-(

I think I see what you mean, and it's true that there's actually no way to know if well-paid well-qualified teachers are intelligent and capable or if they're just well-connected idealistic types who have gotten carried away, and similarly there's likely no correlation with being able to teach kids of any background what the real world is about.
Andy G at 20:52 on 2009-07-22
@ Rami: I meant more that it was more complex, not that it doesn't matter how good teachers are. It's just that they're only part of the process, and also that it's not a lack of understanding of their social world that holds back kids from poorer backgrounds.
Andy G at 21:10 on 2009-07-22
Also @Rami: I think it might be a stretch to describe my background as anything other than sickeningly middle-class, so I think we don't need to attempt to compare our bourgeois credentials!
Sonia Mitchell at 22:33 on 2009-07-22
Yes. It's Milton Keynes.


And good article. I completely agree that what the kids are actually quoted as saying is far more telling than how the adults interpret it.
Shim at 07:03 on 2009-07-23
I just find it such a waste the way they treated this whole situation. It seems to me you could get some fascinating research (and good teaching) out of this; yes, the cooperation and hierarchies within the group are kind of interesting, but also by actually just talking to them about why they made particular decisions when they built stuff, or "raising issues" (are the people actually characters? Do they have lives that change? Do they have relationships? Move in together? Have children and need a bigger house?) you might tease out a lot of unconscious ideas. Whether you then choose to use that to indoctrinate them in the One True Way is of course your decision. And yeah, maybe you could use it as a link to other interesting topics for them, like comparing lives of people across the world, although even that seems a bit intrusive on their fun. Like basing maths lessons on the lunchtime netball game.

Incidentally, do you think the kids' parents knew what was going on? You'd think they'd blow a fuse.
Jamie Johnston at 20:08 on 2009-08-21
I was reminded of this article and discussion yesterday when I Stumbled Upon (tm) this documentary about a not totally dissimilar classroom exercise. Can't immediately put my finger on why the one in the documentary seems like a much more worthwhile and benign idea than the lego one. Could it just be that the former tries to indoctrinate the children with an idea I agree with? I think / hope not.

Incidentally, if you watch the documentary and find yourself thinking it's all very nice but rather obvious, stick it out until the very beginning of the fourth segment. The point made there isn't really followed up, but it's very very interesting.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 21:33 on 2009-08-21
Can't immediately put my finger on why the one in the documentary seems like a much more worthwhile and benign idea than the lego one. Could it just be that the former tries to indoctrinate the children with an idea I agree with? I think / hope not.

I haven't watched the video but I remember seeing that documentary years ago. I'd say more likely the difference is that the teacher is honest about what she's doing there, and also that her experiment is a far better analogy. Randomly assigning greater worth to a superficial physical trait pretty much is a truth at the heart of racism, and she really is putting it in action in a limited way in the experiment. Where as in Lego town the teachers seemed to be skewing the kids' reactions to fit their preconceived ideas, and denying their own meddling and coercion.

Finally, since it's a documentary we can actually see how the kids are reacting and what they're saying for ourselves, instead of having the teacher explain to us what their words meant.

As I said, I haven't seen that documentary in years, but I still remember the reaction of one little boy when the teacher announced that he, who had been in the "superior" group the week before, was now it turns out, one of the inferior ones. His little "uh oh" face is hilarious.
Jamie Johnston at 15:00 on 2009-08-22
I'd say more likely the difference is...

Er, yup, I think you've covered it - thanks! Yes, it's especially the much greater accuracy of the analogy.

[Thinks a bit.]

Although I suppose a racist whose racism is based on some sort of intellectual conviction (if there are any such racists left) might say that it isn't accurate analogy because black people are in fact genetically inferior in X, Y, and Z respects whereas brown-eyed people aren't. So arguably Mrs Elliot, like the teachers at Hilltop, was creating a simplified model based on the very assumptions that she was trying to prove, the difference being merely that her assumptions were right whereas at Hilltop they were wrong. Hmm. Erm.

[Thinks more.]

Maybe that point of similarity (if it in fact exists and isn't just the result of my inability to see the difference) isn't actually as troubling as it sounds because of another difference between Hilltop and Mrs Elliot's class: in the latter, the children already intellectually understood and agreed with the principles that underpinned the exercise, and the exercise was done not to make them change their views but to help them to understand emotionally what those views really meant and why. Which perhaps points to the conclusion that exercises like this shouldn't be used to try to teach principles or force children to pseudo-spontaneously come up with opinions they didn't have before - which is perhaps where things become sinister and manipulative - but only to help children experience the truth of what they already correctly believe (or, to put it less tendentiously, what they already believe in accordance with overwhelming social consensus).

[Thinks more.]

Which is really what you already much more simply said: Mrs Elliot is "honest about what she's doing". In fact one of the most striking things about the programme for me was that she quite clearly told the children before the exercise began that it was going to be an artificial exercise to help them understand discrimination by dividing them into two groups on an arbitrary and meaningless basis, and even then, even while many if not all of the children continued to be quite conscious that there was actually nothing inherently inferior about people with brown eyes, they still unconsciously internalized the blue / brown distinction to such an extent and with such speed that within a day they were fighting, their academic achievement changed, and many of them felt profoundly demoralized. I suppose in that sense the exercise wasn't so much saying, 'Look, this is why racism is bad' but, 'Look, this is why racism is so very hard to uproot even when we all know it's bad.'

His little "uh oh" face is hilarious.

Yes, and equally the expressions of some of the brown-eyed children, especially the girl with the straight brown hair, when the teacher starts explaining the exercise, are absolutely heart-breaking.

Incidentally (last point, I promise), the segment at the end where she repeats the exercise with the adults, and where one of them in the discussion afterwards talks about how he felt completely powerless because any attempt by the 'inferior' group to protest or refuse to cooperate with the discriminatory rules was used by the teacher as further evidence of their inferiority in order to reinforce the discrimination, resonates quite powerfully with Fugitivus' famous blog-post about rape, which I also only discovered quite recently.
Arthur B at 15:28 on 2009-08-22
Although I suppose a racist whose racism is based on some sort of intellectual conviction (if there are any such racists left)

In theory, there are quite a lot of such people. They tend to cite The Bell Curve a lot.

In practice, I suspect the emotional "them folks don't look like me" reaction comes first, and then the intellectual justification is cooked up after the fact. The science they latch onto is either misinterpreted joyfully or cooked up by cranks; it's a lot like Creationism or Holocaust denial in that sense.
Rami at 17:56 on 2009-08-22
In theory ... In practice ...
I think calling it theory and practice is giving them unnecessary credibility. The contrast should be "If you believe what they claim" vs "In actual fact"...
Viorica at 18:34 on 2009-08-22
The video isn't loading, but it's one of those "make brown-eyed kids second-class citizens" exercises, right? My fifth-grade teacher did that with us when we were learning about the Holocaust. Instead of brown eyes, she picked on the blue-eyed kids, since there were fewer of them. The thing that sticks in my memory for that paticular lesson is that another student and I tried to creep over to the area where the blue-eyed kids were being kept, because we didn't want to be part of the group that was doing the oppressing, though we obviously didn't put it that way at the time. I don't know if that signified the ability of a child to recognize why racism is wrong, or if the teacher just didn't make it believable enough.
Jamie Johnston at 21:39 on 2009-08-22
Yes, first she subjugates the brown-eyed ones and the next day she swaps them over. They seem to be roughly half and half.

It's a shame you can't see the video: I'd be very interested to hear how it compares to the one you did - not least because the teacher who originated the exercise says that she doesn't think it should become a widespread thing in schools, for reasons I didn't fully understand. Don't know whether the Frontline site offers any other formats for watching it.

Were there any green-eyed children in your class? I kept wondering what would've happened if there had been.
Viorica at 03:41 on 2009-08-23
I finally managed to load it, and it's much more realistic than the one my class did. For starters, she carried it out for several days, when ours only lasted about an hour. Our teacher just yelled at the blue-eyed kids, she didn't make them wear identification, or give the brown-eyes kids special priveleges. I do remember she made one of the blue-eyed kids stand on a chair because she wasn't allowed on the floor, then told her to leave the room altogether. Mostly it was too over-the-top to hit home.

There weren't any green-eyes kids than I can recall- just a lot of brown-eyes kids and maybe five with blue eyes.
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