Comments on Dan H's Fear and Loathing in Legotown

Dan Talks Like a Daily Mail Reader

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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.

*Snigger*

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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