Sunday, May 24, 2015

Shifting bricks. Am I the only person who loathes lego?

I'm a fan of educational technology but not of LEGO. I have twin boys, well not so much boys as men now, so had to clean out their lairs. A shocking discovery was the massive amount of expensive, polluting plastic, we had bought, lying around in boxes. But it’s not just the unsustainable waste, it’s the claims that surround the corporation’s educational PR, the simplistic but ultimately hollow promises of the ‘LEGO’ corporation. 
1. Abrickadabra
I want to start by saying that I think the word ‘creative’ is the most overused and certainly one of the most abused words in education. With LEGO it reaches new levels of hyperbole. Place pre-designed blocks one by one on top of each other, or worse build pre-designed models in a pre-set order, add little pre-designed figures and ‘abrickadabra’, the false promise of creativity is fulfilled.
Most modern LEGO comes in the form of inflexible pieces that have to be used in a pre-set way, even left and right or orientated, as they are figures, vehicles, whatever. LEGO has moved away from reusable bricks to building pre-set, usually branded, models. I can’t see how this is in any way ‘creative’. If anything, their approach limits imagination. As a builder you’re a factory worker assembling the ‘product’.
2. Playing around
Granted, old-school, brick LEGO does allow for some imaginative play but let’s not turn this into some great breakthrough in learning and education. I’d much rather my kids built dens, climbed trees and played sport. Encourage some risk taking - take apart a washing machine, play with fire, throw a spear and make things with a pocket knife. Playing with blocks is OK but it’s predictable play with not enough freedom to express yourself, learn something new and push the boundaries.
3. Pollution
It was Greenpeace, who last year forced LEGO to abandon their stupid and disastrous partnership with Shell Oil (what were they thinking). The now famous video ‘LEGO: Everything is not awesome’. Then, there’s the 4.8 million pieces of LEGO pieces lost at sea in the Tokio Express, that are still being washed up on beaches today. Let’s keep it simple, LEGO doesn’t biodegrade., it pollutes our planet.
4. You’re being used
You, as a parent, you may also be polluting the minds of your children and paying for the privilege. With LEGO, you effectively pay to extend the marketing of other franchised brands, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter. LEGO has cleverly manipulated you into being a marketing machine for others. You are being manipulated, not into stimulating the imagination of your child but making him or her a pawn in their viral marketing game. They design you buy and reproduce their design,
5. Daily Mail!
No surprise that LEGO did a deal with the Daily Mail to distribute free mini-LEGO toys (redeemable at WH Smith and ToysRUs, so that you’ll be pressed ganged into buying more than you intend or need). That’s exactly the parent demographic I’d be hitting, Parents who don’t know shit but are desperate to get their little Johnnies and Jennies ahead in the game. The good news is that it a con.
6. Bricks not clicks
They’ve been clever in holding back the digital tide, by making a movie and some maker stuff. Mindstorms, the LEGO packs that teach programming, robotics etc. sort of annoy me. Here’s why.  Nothing wrong with the idea but by this point the LEGO blocks have become somewhat irrelevant. You’re an expert in plastic blocks one minute then an education expert in coding etc. the next. That’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
7. Expensive
Let me deliver this straight up. Your product is just too damn expensive., sometimes insanely expensive. As a parent you’re being conned into paying top dollar for some cheap plastic. The blocks are made from thermoplastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is very strong but it’s basically plastic made from oil, so the price of oil largely determines the operational profit. strong, So why the And don’t get me started on Legoland. Never have I experienced a more dispiriting, fake, branded and fake experience.
Toy manufacturers need to sell toys to children and it helps of they can convince parents of their education worth. With LEGO you have to suspend belief in green policy, sustainability and evidence-based education to buy into their claims, which are clearly part of a clever marketing strategy. Let’s be clear, this is the insidious side of privatisation in education, fooling parents and bribing teachers into shifting product. Hooking parents and kids into buying over-riced plastic on the wrong assumption that it’s ‘educational’.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As with everything out comes down to context. Consumerism, brand exploitation, cheep imported plastic. This is the status quo of the toy industry. Lego are moving in the wrong direction and losing that greatness. However they are still miles clear if the pack.
Just use Technic and City, and get them second hand, they are indestructible for a reason.

6:37 AM  
Blogger nick shackleton-jones said...

Please, please, please can you do kittens next, Donald? I hate their furry little faces

Just to pre-empt the ‘I played with lego and it did me no harm’ comments, I love your blog. Whether intentionally or not you do a great job of reminding people to question, by challenging them to defend their assumptions.

On the lego front, your argument is pretty weak. Yes it’s oil. So is pretty much everything. Your shoes, your clothes, your car… etc.

And it’s marketed. And it turns out marketing makes the world go round. A cynic might view your reliably contrarian brand as savvy marketing - that’s why you get invited to conferences after all (I’m sure the same thought has crossed your mind): watching something get a good kicking is pretty entertaining after all, if YouTube is anything to go by.

Is it educational? I dunno. Uncharacteristically short on research in this post. Call of Duty vs lego? There’s some research that shows Call of Duty can increase attention and stave of dementia, I think. Recall seeing some stuff suggesting lego improves visio-spatial skills.

Personally I think Lego is a merely a remarkable tale of business diversification. They’re coming out with a programme that takes your lego design and allows you to fly it around using the Oculus Rift. Now there’s a thought ;o)

12:13 PM  
Blogger Brian Mulligan said...

There is a bigger grouch in the world than me. Woohoo!

I can't let this go without comment - I love Lego.

Standard parts?

Creatives don't build things from scratch - they use items developed by others. Lego parts are incredibly clever or well designed to be very versatile so you can build almost anything. This replicates real life engineering where most things are made of standard parts (except luxury items like cars and apple things). To be honest the big creativity killer with Lego is that the pre-defined items in the kits are so appealing to the kids they don't want to take them apart and build something from their own imagination.

The old bricks? I had these as a child - they're not nearly as flexible as the Lego Technics pieces my kids have. In this case good design does constitute progress. As in many other things, the old days were not better.


Why not do a value / waste ratio and compare it to other uses of petroleum. My guess is that you'll find that very little Lego is thrown out compared to the value it gives. I bet they see more plastic bottles than lego being washed up in Japan.

Polluting the kids minds?

Harry Potter arguably did more to develop my kids' reading abilities than anything they came across at school (that and the lego website). This is business and we walk this tightrope every day when we allow our kids to watch football on the TV. By the way the Lego movie was really good and the basic idea was to encourage kids not to follow the prescribed models on the Lego box.

Making coding experts? Coding is boring to most people. I taught C to mechanical engineering technicians and it nearly drove me daft. I taught them Logo and we had much more fun. MIndstorms has the same effect and really works. The 3 most important things in learning? Motication, motivation, motivation.

Expensive? I've tried the other blocks with my kids (I have scottish blood and I'm always looking for a bargain). They're not built to the same precision and they don't have quite the same mechanical properties. Lego performs better. No doubt Lego makes higher profits as well. What can you say? They're a well run company who know how to produce good stuff and market it well.

Of course manufacturers want to sell toys. Everybody is selling something. But the best way to make money selling is to make something useful and then tell people about it.

Better Lego than Smartboards.

3:54 PM  

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