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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