SXSWedu: Are Legos the Next Edu Wave?

Playfulness enters the classroom

Legos: still giving kids hands-on engineering experience
Legos: still giving kids hands-on engineering experience (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

The battle lines over standardized testing seem very clear. There are policy makers and educational publishers on one side, and families and teachers on the other. But at SXSWedu, those forces opposed to teaching to the test found new allies in a possibly unexpected area: technology firms that want to bring fun back into learning. Much as the Kennedy administration, decades ago, tried to rip foreign policy from the hands of stats wonks through game theory, there's an insurgent wave of IT companies bringing playfulness back into the classroom – not just as a relief from the curriculum, but as a part of it.

Unlike most technology companies in the field, international toy leviathan Lego already comes with huge brand recognition. Similarly, unlike most gaming firms aiming for the education market, Lego's roots as a construction toy give it a certain credibility. Plus, as noted, it's perfectly "backwards compatible": An original 1947 brick will lock in with a brick made today.

At last week's conference, Stephan Turnipseed was pretty easy to spot: He's the guy with all the Legos at an education conference. Not surprising, since he is president emeritus of LEGO Education, one of the first companies targeting the playful learning market. In 1980, Turnipseed said, "We started to put together boxes that were attuned to what the teachers wanted in the classroom, pre-K through eighth grade. That resonated with the community, and in 1997 we decided to become significantly more intentional about education." After that came deliberate moves to integrate the curriculum into product development, and hiring teachers to give insight into what their peers really needed and wanted. Turnipseed said, "We had a growth from specific boxes to a portfolio."

Now the firm has major sub-brands within the market, designed to tackle underlying needs in education. Obviously, the construction side dovetails into the current educational fixation with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), starting with the pre-K Duplo range, through the intermediate WeDo sets, and finally to the long-established MindStorms robotics and engineering kits, which combine a programmable brick with simple gear-and-pulley systems. The end result is that, for many students, Lego has been their first hands-on experience with robotics and engineering. Then there are the newer StoryStarter kits, which use the construction toy to teach the underlying concepts of storytelling and narrative. That's a range that has been developed directly to tie in to the curriculum. "For example, with the Texas tests, where they have a literary-based evaluation, this allows them the fundamentals to be successful in that particular area."

That sense of play and wonder strikes a chord in technology pioneer Nolan Bush­nell, who warned that the current education paradigm is training out imagination and ingenuity. In his SXSWedu talk he said, "A lot of people are told, 'Oh, grow up.' What does that mean? Stop being creative like a pre-schooler?"

As the designer of Pong and co-founder of Atari, Bushnell is often dubbed the god­father of video games, but in recent years his interests have turned to educational technology with his new firm, BrainRush. It depends upon adaptive learning, which tracks and shifts to meet students' needs: Rather than forcing kids down yes/no tracks, he said, "Software allows you to test the concept, iterate it, and test it again." Bushnell has made big claims for its game-based learning, suggesting that underlying skills can be acquired between eight and 10 times faster than through normal methods. "We just want 10 minutes in every classroom to instill the basics," he said, suggesting that this could allow students to get through the core curriculum in two years rather than four. However, Bushnell was not positing a new wave of 10-year-old high school graduates. Instead, he argued that if all students reach that same baseline level of understanding quicker, "teachers can use that extra time to put into projects."

In a statement that may have surprised many in the audience, Bushnell spoke against the proliferation of standardized testing. But his position is very much in line with what many ed tech advocates believe. While the current system makes life easier for policy makers and some education publishers, "We don't know how many times people are being turned off by that kind of structure," said Bushnell. While the pro-testing behemoths like Pearson Interactive have a vested interest in the testing industry, most smaller companies and many technologists are advocates for disruptive technology and out-of-the-box thinking. He explained, "Outcomes become the trump. Outcomes of kids actually understanding and being able to apply." Moreover, Bushnell had two personal examples of how standardized testing, and the whole process that it is built upon, regularly fails: his son, and his close friend Steve Jobs. He recalled how his son flunked biology because he didn't hand in homework. He knew the material, but failed on the process. And of Steve Jobs, he noted that most tech companies would never hire the Apple founder, because his résumé would never make it out of the initial screening. "He didn't have a college degree, he wasn't a particularly brilliant scientist, but he had a feeling for what was going to be next."

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