As a child, I always wished for a Lego train that could be driven electrically. The dream remained unfulfilled, but in return I got a model railway (Arnold N for the nerds among you), which I still have today and which now stands in a showcase and decorates the living room.
I had Lego like probably every child but very much so. An old Omo detergent can – at that time, detergent was still available in large cardboard cylinders – was used to store the bricks, of which, in my opinion, we had far too few. What my siblings and I had here were standard bricks, which today are more or less the same as those sold under the title Classic Lego.
One of the things I used to build with it was a money bin like Scrooge McDuck’s, in which I threw in my meagre pennies and shilling coins, and which only lasted until I had bombarded it with small metal balls from the Playmobil cannon and cracked it. The second object was a spaceship of my own design, from which two mini spaceships could take off from two side wings and which could shoot longish stones even with built-in rubber rings.
Also at that time there were already some Lego sets with motifs, but they were much too expensive for us. It remained with the standard Lego.
More than thirty years later I wanted to buy such a classic set as a birthday present and it was almost impossible to find it. In toy shops and Lego stores, Lego sets for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lego City, Bionicle, Lego Girls and the like dominated.
At first glance, that’s cool. From very small to adult Lego sets are available, which increase in complexity and functionality depending on the age group. Lego Technic has everything from gear wheels to crankshafts that your heart desires.
The first time you assemble the set, unpacking individual packets of stones and spreading them out in front of you, you then follow dozens of pages of instructions to put the set together in the correct sequence. Depending on the set, you can be busy for at least half an hour or even a whole day.
Of course you will be proud of your creation afterwards. But it’s not really your own creation. You just follow a manual and usually you leave it at that. Only a few of the sets are then taken apart again and rebuilt. And even rarer than your own design.
And here’s the problem. Such Lego sets may teach you how to follow instructions and spatial thinking, but not the creative process of coming up with your own design and finding the right brick from a collection of various bricks, or perhaps, in the absence of the right one, finding a replacement brick and getting an alternative or maybe even a better design.
In fact, from the beginning of the industrial revolution, following an instruction was a desired skill. Operating a machine or disassembling and operating a rifle in the military had to be taught from instructions. To do this, you had to be able to read and write. The curricula were also oriented in this way, with a lot to do with memorization.
Without thinking about following regulations has disadvantages. Common sense is often not used and one stubbornly follows protocol, even where it makes no sense. Following tried and tested instructions works in stable environments where procedures do not change. As soon as this security is no longer given, they fail.
Children are taught that only the design from the instructions is the right one, but their own inferior. They are educated to turn off their own brains and not to deviate from the norm. In this way their creativity is killed off at an early stage.
But we know that our children will no longer be in the same job for decades, but will have a completely new job profile every few years. This requires flexibility and creative skills. Instead of being able to follow instructions, they must be able to create new and short-lived ones. Lego sets train us to stubbornly follow instructions. You can follow them without having to think big.
Creative Use of Lego Sets
Now, I do not want to put forward a spearhead against Lego sets, but our handling of them. My recommendation is that, after the unique composition of a Lego set with children and young people, it should be completely dismantled after a few days and the building blocks mixed in with all the other Lego bricks. From this huge set of building blocks, the future creatives can create their own designs and be proud of them.
It may hurt some of the pedants among us – and I count myself among them – but true creativity begins with one’s own imagination and one’s own problem, not the one from a manual.