Legos and Teaching Writing

One major complaint about college students today, even highly-prepared college students, is that they have been taught to do well on tests, not to think critically. The culprit may be No Child Left Behind, and I’m not convinced that the Common Core will change this.

As a history professor, I assign a lot of essays asking students to analyze multiple sources, events, people, artifacts, etc. What I get, most typically, are essays that describe all of the individual sources, events, people, artifacts, etc., rather than building a thesis-driven argument or analytical case.

I’m not alone. On Facebook today, medieval historian Leigh Ann Craig posted the following metaphor about writing and legos, which I share with her permission. Emphases mine.

It occurs to me, as I read another batch of papers in which my students’ k-12 training to fear and avoid independent critical analysis is sadly evident, that perhaps what they need in order to make the conceptual leap is a good Lego metaphor.

Primary source analysis: Here is a Lego brick. What color is the Lego? Who made it? How many buttons does it have and what shape is it, and what could it potentially be used to build? What could it NOT be used to build?

Book review: Check out this Lego car someone built. What bricks did they use? Tell me about the Lego car’s design, whether it is any functional good, and what the problems might be with it. Is there anything especially ingenious about the car’s design?

Position essay: Here’s an entire bucket of Legos. Build me a Lego car. Make sure it’s functional.

Research Paper:  Hey, I hear there’s Lego bricks out there all over the place. Go find some. Build me a car out of the Lego bricks you are able to locate. Make sure the car is functional.

Historiographical essay: review all recent Lego cars built. Consider what sort of design needs are typically not being addressed very well. Propose possible new design for Lego cars. Or maybe Lego airplanes.

Because when I ask you to build me a Lego car and you passively look over and then describe to me a series of individual Lego bricks, that’s a problem.

I like it and am going to use this metaphor in class. Or maybe just bring in a lot of legos and tell them to get building.

One Reply to “Legos and Teaching Writing”

  1. layciegrace says:

    Comparing essay assignments to building Lego figures is a good move. And thus opens up a can of questions and challenges to teachers and how we view educating children. The danger is that people who challenge the status quo become targets for criticism and character assasination.

    – Laycie of

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