Tagged: homeschooling

My Kid Learned More from Mario Maker than I Did from a Marketing Major

Mario Maker teaches marketing
Image courtesy my iPhone. Weird mustache courtesy Nintendo.

I’m not kidding.  I just watched my kid grasp basic marketing truths that took me years in the professional world to get. (I might be a bit daft, but that’s another story).

I didn’t end up graduating with a major in marketing, but it was my major for several semesters of useless university.  The only things I remember from those classes are the words “target market” with no real context.

That’s just it.  I needed a lived context.

So my son builds these levels on the WiiU game Mario Maker.  He’s posted some of his favorites to the network so others can play them and, if they like them, give them a star.  He checked in the other night only to find two of his favorite creations had been removed from the network because they did not get enough stars in a given time span.

Here comes the pain.  And the learning.

I watched him go through all the stages of grief.  “That can’t be right?!”…”How dare they!!”…”Maybe if I tweak it and change the name I can re-upload it?”…”It’s hopeless.  What’s the point of building levels”…and finally, after a long grieving process lasting almost minutes, acceptance.

Unaware of how enthralled I was with watching this unfold (because I pretended to still be reading) he repeated the entire situation to me, making a point to vent his frustration because of how hard he worked.

“The worst part is, that’s the level I worked on the longest and it was my favorite!  Some of my other levels are just silly and were easy to build, and they have more stars than this one.  I wonder why?”

Big Important Marketing Lesson #1: The labor theory is bunk

Karl Marx and a lot of other confused social scientists with bad beards (Adam Smith gets a pass on this one…no beard) like to claim that value is derived from the cost of production – the amount and difficulty of the labor that goes into it.  This is clearly false, and my son now knows it.

Even if you know this from a (rare) good economics teacher, you probably don’t really know it in your gut and know how to plan around it until you’ve experienced it.  Some of my favorite, most labor intensive blog posts get no love, while some silly Haiku I tap into my phone in a few seconds might get…well, a little more love at least (I guess my example isn’t that dramatic after all, since my readership isn’t that huge…Hi mom!).

This is an important lesson.  Sure, content is king.  Yes, build a better mousetrap.  The problem is that what you think great content and better mousetraps look like mightn’t be the same as what customers think.

There are two potential solutions: the product solution and the marketing solution (best used in tandem).  The product solution is to learn from what people do like and make products more like that.  The marketing solution is to learn what feelings people want to experience when using your product and do a better job of attaching those feelings to it, finding the niche of people who will “get it”, and getting the word out to them.

My son, a very stubborn and independent creative type not keen on compromising his design, immediately went with the marketing solution.

Big Important Marketing Lesson #2: 1,000 true fans, social proof, list building…

This is really a lot of lessons piled into one, but it all happened so fast it was like a single epiphany for my son.  It took me a long time to understand the value of building a “tribe” of loyal fans or customers (Hi mom!).  It took me a long time to see the value of capturing leads, doing personal one-on-one outreach to influencers and early adopters, and touting the real stories of happy customers to help draw in the more risk-averse with social proof.

My son had the epiphany less than ten minutes after his teary explosions during the second and fourth stages of grief.  Here’s how it went down.

He jumped onto some sort of chatroom type thing in the game and posted a question asking if anyone else had been frustrated by having a level removed for too few stars.  In minutes he was conversing with three or four others.  He checked out their profiles and levels.  He followed them.  They followed him.  Then they somehow came up with an agreement.  They would give each other the name of their newest levels and all play each others and give them a star, ensuring three quick stars, pushing it nearer the top of the newly added levels, raising the profile and keeping it from getting removed.

It was late and I was going to bed.  He doesn’t like to be the last one up, so he begged me to wait a few minutes while he dutifully played and starred some of their levels.  He double checked and verified that his new coalition had done the same for him.

Damn.

He went out and talked with people, built a tribe around a shared frustration, collaborated to find a solution, and engaged in what MBA douchebags might call “synergistic strategic partnerships” (I don’t know if MBA’s would actually say that, but I imagine they would and this is my article).  He added them to his followers so that there could be accountability, followup, and future collaboration.

As a dad one of my solemn duties is to always think my kid too quickly plays the victim and doesn’t take things into his own hands.  It’s the kind of self-righteous worry a parent feels entitled to.  Except this time he robbed me of the opportunity to start waxing about how in my day we had to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and mustached plumbers didn’t get any stars from anybody.

After a brief moment of feeling a victim of the system and being angry with idiot consumers who don’t appreciate good product, he saw his frustration as an opportunity.  Surely someone else felt the same?  Surely there was a way to work around it?  And he did.

He realized that intentions don’t matter, value creation does.  But value creation is not just in the product, but the feeling people have about it, the reasons they have to care, the connection you build with them.  Now even before building a level he preps his loyal allies to reduce the risk and boost the ratings when it is released to the network.  This is what authors do with their emails lists (sign up for mine here, I have another book coming out and you can be one of the early reviewers…you too mom!).

Teachers Aren’t Very Good Teachers

My kid isn’t some kind of special genius.  The world we live in is the most resource, information, and opportunity rich in human history.  If kids freely engage the world and follow their curiosity and intrinsic goals they will encounter a more diverse range of ideas and experiences than we can imagine.  When I try to directly teach my kids this stuff they scoff or sigh or roll their eyes or play dead hoping I’ll go for help so they can finally escape my words of wisdom.

In fact, unless we actively work to suppress it our kids urge to learn, experiment, innovate, create, and adapt will blossom.  That suppression often takes well-meaning forms like direct, mandated instruction from adult “experts” who know almost nothing about Mario Maker or other contexts kids actually care about.  It takes the form of classrooms and textbooks and tests and pressure to careerify interests.  It takes the form of parental worry that if their kid doesn’t learn the same bunch of arbitrary, mostly useless facts they were forced to memorize at the same age they did everything will fall apart and society will crumble.

Relax.  Your kid is going to be fine.  Even if they play a lot of video games.

…………………………………………………………….

Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life:

Why LEGO is more valuable than algebra

How my son learned to read when we stopped trying to teach him

Seven Deadly Mindsets

Dan Sanchez was kind enough to invite me to coauthor a little piece for FEE.org about mindsets inculcated by the schooling process and how a key step toward personal freedom and growth is recognizing and obliterating them.  This is what my friend Zak Slayback would call “deschooling yourself”.

Check out the article here.  The seven mindsets we outline are:

  1. The conveyor belt mindset
  2. The permission mindset
  3. The student mindset
  4. The teacher mindset
  5. The worker mindset
  6. The recess mindset
  7. The major mindset

From the article,

“The first step toward self-emancipation is certainly not supporting or opposing a presidential candidate. Neither need it be civil disobedience, evasion of government directives, or resistance to the authorities. There is much lower hanging fruit to be had than that.”

And,

“Only a people who first free themselves spiritually and individually can hope to free themselves physically and as a society. It is impossible to liberate people, as Voltaire said, “from the chains they revere.” And the first order of business in improving society is, as Albert Jay Nock said, “to present society with one improved unit.””

Read the full text.

Put Your Education and Life In Good Hands…Yours

I had an awesome email conversation with a young lady named Hannah who’s busy building the life she wants and realized there is no prefabricated, standardized educational path that will cut it. Here’s an excerpt:

“I originally thought I was on a college path, because I loved academics so much and because everybody told me college was the obvious choice for me, but when I started actively exploring schools I was really unimpressed. I knew from my homeschooling experience that, academically, I could learn pretty much anything I wanted to on my own. I also feel pretty sure that I can learn it better, because I can follow my own instinct and interest and learn it in the way that perfectly suits me, not the one-size-fits-all system. I was horrified by the price tag, felt like four years was a long time to waste in school, and I didn’t have a formulaic career path picked out for which a degree would be a logical first step. I didn’t want the life of any young college graduate I knew, definitely wanted to avoid the college culture, and felt underwhelmed by the curriculum and unimpressed by every professor I’d ever met. At this point in my life, I can’t think of anything I really want to do for which I actually need a college education. The icing on the cake was the moment when I realized: right now I’m free. The moment I commit to a semester of college I become shackled in debt — something I’ll have to shape my life around paying off, rather than exploring interesting projects and developing and growing, which is what I’d rather be doing.”

Check out her blog.

If this resonates with you, check out Praxis.  It’s for people like you and Hannah.  And whether or not Praxis is a fit, you can email me anytime if you’re itching to do your own thing but need someone to talk to!

What You Master in 15,000 Hours

If Malcolm Gladwell is right then it takes 10,000 hours to master something at the highest level.  I guess that means after the 15,000 hours a typical kid spends in public school they become a master and a half.  But at what?

Certainly not geography, or history, or math, or English, or any of the other arbitrary slivers of factual knowledge called “subjects”.  The learning is too fragmented, inconsistent, and lifeless.  If it’s not the subjects themselves what is the predominant trait or skill that happens consistently throughout that entire, nearly life-consuming 15,000 hours of schooled childhood?  What do kids master?

Seeking permission.

Children master the art of being permission seekers.  They lose the ability, to borrow from James Altucher, to choose themselves.  Each of those 15,000 hours share in common the absence of choice.  Students aren’t free to explore or follow their curiosity outside of incredibly narrow bounds, both metaphorical and cinder block and barbed wire.  Permission must be sought to speak, go to the bathroom, or do anything differently than the officially sanctioned authority figure has prescribed.

Is it any wonder people stick around in unhappy jobs and relationships?  Is it any wonder people numbly obey sometimes absurd and immoral laws?  Is it any wonder people don’t deviate from the education, career, and life path that was explicitly pushed on them?  Is it any wonder people don’t believe in or take pride in themselves or others in the absence of external rewards and badges and credentials?

Sometimes people say that anything other than 15,000 hours in school is radical.  I’m all for radical, but I can’t help but find it an odd way to view not sending your kids to school.  As John Taylor Gatto said,

“Is there a more radical idea in the history of the human race than turning your children over to total strangers who you know nothing about? Having those strangers work on your child’s mind, out of your sight, for a period of twelve years?”

15,000 hours.  Let’s hope Gladwell is wrong.

Getting Started on Entrepreneurship While You’re Young

In “The Future of School” I share my biggest regret:

“I wish I had more confidence, and earlier, about going my own way.”

It took me a long time to realize that all the things I thought and did differently weren’t things I should try to shut down, hide, or change.  They were my greatest strengths.

When you’re 14, 16, or 18, all the world seems to be screaming at you to look like the average of some aggregate.  Well-meaning teachers, parents, coaches, relatives, and friends want to know how you stack up on a series of “normal” indicators of status and ability.  They want you to know the stuff everyone else your age knows, and do the stuff everyone else your age does.

But the reality is that it’s the “Crazy Ones” who change the world.  It’s those who gain the courage and confidence to not suppress their unique take; their hacks and workarounds; their weird approaches and unconventional interests and solutions.  These are the makings of an entrepreneur.

And let’s be clear: entrepreneurship is the greatest single skill needed for the present and future marketplace.  Machines and software are taking off like never before, and they can follow rules and obey orders and perform rote tasks better than humans.  This is not cause for concern, but a huge opportunity.  It frees up humans to do what only humans can: creatively problem solve, innovate, experiment, and adapt.

But it does mean that the vast majority of what’s taught in traditional education settings is of little and decreasing value.  Knowledge of facts is nearly obsolete.  We have Google.  Memorization is silly when we have unlimited digital storage.  Following the crowd kills the best instincts and opportunities for value creation.  We need to re-ignite the entrepreneurial spark that everyone is born with.

That’s why we’ve built a 60-day entrepreneurship eCourse for teens.  It all begins with a mindset.  The mindset I wish I would have found sooner.  The mindset that says your best assets are your most unique attributes.  It’s about turning your creativity into a discipline.  It’s about becoming a self-directed, perpetual learner.  It’s about experimentation, trial and error, and approaching life like a game.

This course is hard.  You could easily scan it and gain a few bits of wisdom.  But that’s not what it’s built for.  It’s built for an intensive 60 days.  It’s built to make you a little uncomfortable as you learn to explore your own strengths, weaknesses, and passions, build a basic website, and share your ideas and lessons learned along the way.  If you go through it – really go through it and complete every part – you will absolutely walk away a different person, closer to your goals and the life you want to live.

If you complete the whole thing we’ll be impressed.  In fact, we’re giving you a free coaching session with course creator and Praxis Education Director T.K. Coleman if you do.  You think you can do it?

You don’t need to have that big business idea to begin on the entrepreneurial journey.  It starts by becoming the type of person who is ready and able to seize the moment when that big idea comes.  It starts now.

Are you ready?

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

Announcing the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

It’s here!

After considerable demand from young people and parents of young people (primarily homeschoolers and unschoolers) not quite ready for the full, year-long Praxis experience, we’re now offering a 60 day course for teens.

Praxis Education Director TK Coleman guides you through this intensive two-month experience as you learn to adopt mindsets and habits conducive to the entrepreneurial life.  This course is awesome.

Entrepreneurship is a mindset.  It requires deep, philosophical thinking.  It requires ridiculous levels of commitment and work ethic.  It requires genuine self-knowledge and self-confidence.  It requires big, crazy ideas.  This course is designed to help young people begin the journey.

I want to emphasize that this isn’t something that will be successfully accomplished as a casual daily dalliance.  It requires more than just consuming information.  It’s full of activities and ways to engage the real world and put knowledge to the test.  You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading about it.  You can’t learn to be an entrepreneur sitting back in your chair.

From the course intro,

“Information is only one small aspect of a good education. Anyone with an internet connection can find tons of information – it’s the easiest thing to find in today’s world.

So if you want to set yourself apart from the crowd, the key element is learning how to think about information critically, creatively, and practically. This course will help you do all three of those things by giving you daily challenges, exercises, and questions designed to help you engage the materials at a high level.

Don’t limit yourself to just being a reader or a listener. There’s no value in scanning your eyes over the words on a page just to say “I finished the article.” Learning isn’t about impressing other people or chasing after rewards. It’s about opening your mind, unlocking your potential, challenging yourself to think outside the box, and figuring out ways to use information to create value.”

One of my favorite sayings is, Agere sequitur credere.  It’s Latin for, “Action follows belief.”  Entrepreneurship is about action, but a precondition to action is belief.  Belief in the opportunity around you.  Belief in your vision of something better.  Belief in your ability to execute on it.  Belief and the actions that flow from it are not inborn qualities.  You can train yourself to see things differently, to habituate creativity and productivity, and to act on what you discover.

Are you ready?

*For the month of January, we’re kicking the course off with a 20% discount.  Signup now and get started on the journey!

The Education System Isn’t Broken, It Just Sucks

Some people say the education system is broken.  It’s not.  It’s doing exactly what it’s designed to do.  The problem is that what it’s designed to do isn’t good, and it’s less valuable than ever.

I’m not one of those people who thinks it used to be a good system.  It’s not obsolete, it was wrong from the get-go.  It’s always produced undesirable outcomes.  I don’t think obedience, the ability to follow rules, falling in line with authority, uniformity of belief and process, and deferring to experts and standard explanations are desirable traits in individuals and societies.  I think they are dangers to be avoided.

To the extent that part of the result of this will-crushing process is some uniform skills that can be plugged into various business roles, there is some potential market value.  Though even these skills can be gained far better, faster, cheaper, and in more exciting and effective ways.

But today even those few things that people walk away with after 15,000+ hours in a classroom are of almost no value, and the trend is a further decline.

It is less valuable than ever to learn a skill.

It’s less valuable than every to learn to memorize, obey, hoop-jump, and test-take for bureaucratically approved authorities.

It is more valuable than ever to know how to think, how to learn, how to do what machines and software can’t.  Create.  Innovate.  Be entrepreneurial.

Once you realize that the education system isn’t broken you can stop trying to fix it.  It works really well based on its own principles of design.  You can’t make a hammer better at performing surgery.  You need to drop it and grab a scalpel, or invent a laser.

You’ve got to step outside of the education system altogether and build your own learning program tailored to your own goals.  It’s a challenge, but a lot easier than you might think.

Humans are naturally curious, stubborn, adaptive, knowledge-gathering, active, creative beings.  Those are all the things you need to begin, and you don’t really need to do anything to get them.  It’s harder to do what the current system does, which is snuff that out and create uniform widgets.  That’s why they need so many buildings, fences, supervisors, guards, and so much money.

All you need is an environment where natural human tendencies can flourish, bump up against the world, get feedback, and adjust.

Sometimes the system isn’t broken, it just sucks.  Get out.  Build your own thing.

How My Son Learned to Read When We Stopped Trying to Teach Him

We were homeschooling and our son was six years old.  He had a good vocabulary and comprehension of ideas beyond many kids his age.  We knew reading would open up the world to him, we knew he’d like it, and we knew he was very capable of doing it.  But he didn’t.

We tried flashcards.  We tried read-alongs.  We tried playing hardball and we tried being fun and exciting.  We tried restricting activities until he’d done his reading lessons, and we tried giving rewards.  All these efforts had two things in common: they didn’t help him read one bit and they made our relationship with him worse.  Being a parent and being a child cease to be fun when you’re at odds all the time.

So, at an age when we were starting to worry about his lagging behind, we simply stopped trying.  We quit the whole effort.  He was nearly seven when we gave it up in favor of more peace and harmony in the house.

Daily life was a little easier, yet we still had this nagging worry about him.  What will happen if he’s behind where he’s supposed to be for his age?  Still, everything about our efforts to make him read felt wrong, so we simply ignored the fears.

I was reading a lot of great books on how kids learn and I knew intellectually that kids need no instruction to learn to read.  They will learn when they find it valuable and if they are in an environment where it’s possible – one with books and other readers.  Still the head and the heart are very different things.  I knew kids were better at self-teaching than being taught, but I had to watch my own son, sharp as he was, remain completely outside the wonderful world of the written word.

Then it happened, just like so many of the books said it would.  You believe it in stories, but it’s still a surprise when it happens in real life.  One night I overheard my son reading aloud to himself in his bed.  And the first thing he read wasn’t Dick and Jane, but Calvin & Hobbes.  Not light fare for a brand new reader.

Let me back up a bit.  We would often read to him for a few minutes before bed, and lately he had been in love with some old Calvin & Hobbes comics I had from my adolescence.  We’d read him a few pages and say goodnight.  One night it was later than usual and he asked me if I’d read.  I was a bit grumpy and tired, and I said no, I was going to bed.  He protested a bit but could see I wasn’t up for it so he let it go, seeming defeated.  Ten minutes later I heard him reading.

He later told me that he wasn’t actually reading it that night, nor the first several nights after when he spoke the words (and often laughed) aloud.  He had heard us read it so many times he had the words memorized.  He was looking at the pictures and reciting the words like lines to a familiar song.  I didn’t know this until long after he could clearly read without first memorizing, but it really doesn’t matter.  In fact, it’s probably better that my wife and I assumed he was reading it when we first heard him, or we might have been tempted to intervene and try to cajole him into reading it without the cheat of memory and illustrations.  I know too well the kind of unhappy outcome that would have created.

For a year or more we fought with a kid who clearly had all the tools to read and we got nowhere.  He wasn’t faking his inability, he really couldn’t read.  Reading was always an activity that interrupted his day and was associated with expectant and often visibly (despite attempts to hide it) stressed parents.  It was a concept as useless as it was foreign.  But once he had a strong desire – to enjoy his favorite comic strip – and his inability to read was the barrier, he overcame it in no time and never even celebrated or announced it to us.  It was utilitarian, not some lofty thing to perform for a gold star or a pat on the back.  His ability and interest in reading, then writing and spelling, only intensified as he found it indispensable for playing games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts.

We’ve since made a full transition from the imposed curriculum of homeschooling to the kid-created structure of unschooling.  Looking back I’m a little ashamed of the silly way we approached things before, but at the time it was so hard to let go, with all that crippling fear.  There are so many “shoulds” pumped into parents brains from the moment they conceive.  There are percentiles and averages and tests and rankings galore.  But these are useful only to the statisticians and none of them have your child’s interest or happiness in mind.  Aggregates aren’t individuals.  Living your life, or attempting to shape your child’s life, to conform to the average of some population is not a recipe for success.  At best it will produce blandness.  At worst a broken spirit.

You can read any number of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, or Peter Gray on why our son’s experience is not exceptional, but normal.  You can look at studies that show kids who learn to read at age four and kids who learn at age nine have the same reading comprehension by age 11.  You can get story after story from places like the Sudbury Valley school about kids who taught themselves to read in a few short weeks once they got the interest, and even one girl who didn’t become interested until age 13 and then went on to win a literary prize.  But it’s all theory and myth until you experience it with your own child.

Read the books.  Look into the unschooling movement and literature.  But above all, take a step back from your own kids and realize that they are only young once and for such a short time.  Do you really want your memories with them to consist of fights and forced lessons?  Enjoy them.  Let them go their own way and navigate the world.  There are few things more exciting than when they come to you to ask for your help or insight because they really want it, or when they never do because they figure it out on their own and gain a confidence that cannot be won any other way.

The world we live in does not lack for natural incentives to learn to read.  The rewards are massive, as are the costs of illiteracy.  We don’t need to artificially incentivize reading the way a poor farmer might have a few hundred years ago.  When we do we do more harm than good, if not to our children’s ability to read then at least to our enjoyment of our time with them.  They figured out how to speak – the most difficult, nuanced, and complex skill a human can master – without any formal instruction.  They can learn to read too.

———————

*If you are a teen or you have a teen that’s interested in entrepreneurship, creative thinking, and out of the box living, check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course!

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course

Playing with Legos is More Valuable than Learning Algebra

Playing with Legos is More Valuable Than Learning Algebra

I was homeschooled.  My mom really wanted to have a highly structured and rigorous curriculum for us.  She didn’t.  She tried – lord knows the number of books she purchased at annual curriculum fairs – and we’d go through phases with a little more structure than others.  But ultimately, she was raising three stubborn kids while also caring for a disabled husband (and just about anyone else we ever met who needed help…my mom is a wonderful woman who has a terrible time saying ‘no’).

The result is that my siblings and I didn’t do much consistent, structured learning.  Today we might be called borderline “unschoolers”, but at the time nobody had heard the word.  The most structure we had was in the daily and weekly chores we did to help keep up the house and yard and the fact that all three of us had paying jobs from age 10 or so on.  (One of the benefits of not being in school all day is that you can work and earn money, though laws make this harder and harder.)

So what did we do?  I would estimate that between the ages of 4 and 13, roughly half of my time any given day was spent playing with Legos.  My mom used to feel guilty about this.  Frankly, so did I.  I was always a little worried that “real school kids” would be far ahead of me in their knowledge and skill and it might embarrass me some day.  But that day never came.  Real school kids suffered all day while I played Legos, and by the time I went to school (one year in high school, and then college, neither of which were worth the cost) they were no better for it.

My mom would sometime assign us math work through a textbook (Saxon Math. Even the name is ominous), which we would complete and grade on our own.  I remember sitting at my desk and moving through “Algebra 1/2” as fast as I could, not caring or comprehending it.  I’d grade it with the answer guide and fix errors, but mostly I was staring out the window at the excessively fat Squirrels of Milwood, who I’m pretty sure were running some kind of animal cartel.  The fattest of them was an albino squirrel who was probably immortal.  I called him The Godsquirrel.  Where was I…oh yes, working on math problems…

That was pretty much how it would go.  I’d get it out of the way (or not) and get back to my Legos.  Only later have I come to realize how much more valuable playing with Legos was than the little math I did, or really any of the formal instruction I had.  I remember nearly every Lego creation in detail and with great pride.  In fact, give me some Legos today I can still whip up a mean spaceship or watercraft if I do say so myself.

There are a few reasons I think playing with Legos was much more valuable to me than pretending to learn from textbooks.

Confidence

Confidence cannot be given.  It must be earned.  No cat poster telling you that you can do anything will really give you the self-esteem needed to pursue your goals with grit and determination.  Confidence comes by overcoming challenges and solving problems.  Especially problems that are meaningful to you.  Building entire cities with plastic blocks is time-consuming and can be very challenging.  When you’re done you get so much more than a gold star or a pat on the head or a lifeless word on a page that says, “Correct”.  You get to see and touch and play with a tangible creation.  Until you decide to destroy it, you have proof of your work and the challenges you overcame.  (It’s doubly challenging when you have to dig through the Lego bin piece by piece so as not to be too loud and awaken your mom, who is probably on the phone helping someone downstairs, to the realization that you’re playing instead of working.)

Value Creation

In school you’re rewarded for finding the right answers to questions you don’t care about.  Neither does anyone else except (maybe) your teacher.  In the market place where you’ll spend most of your life working and interacting, no one cares about whether you’re right on some arbitrary scale.  They care about value creation.  Playing with Legos imparts this lesson.  No kid gives two hoots about the method you use for finding and snapping together pieces.  What matters is the beauty, originality, and functionality of the end result.  Did you make something awesome?  Everything else is negotiable and can be experimented with, but the ultimate test is whether you created something valuable to yourself and others.  Not in theory, but in the real world.  That’s a kind of “show your work” I can get behind.

Solve for X

Algebra is about figuring out puzzles when you don’t have all the pieces.  But most kids don’t really know this and don’t really care.  I didn’t.  But I did love solving complex problems without having all the pieces…as long as those pieces were small bits of colored plastic.  None of us had enough Legos to build exactly what we envisioned in all the right colors and shapes.  Especially back then when there were few custom pieces or crazy shapes. (*Shakes cane at kids these days*)  You want to make a light saber?  You’ve got to break some other pieces in half and improvise.  Lego building is nothing but a series of complex design problems with a constant absence of the right pieces.  I loved solving for X, as long as it was the X-Wing spacecraft.

Freedom

New sets come with instructions.  Maybe you follow them once, maybe not at all.  But eventually you’ll rip apart the prescribed design and create something new.  There are no arbitrary rules, but it doesn’t mean there are no rules.  Like the real world, some things are non-negotiable.  The pieces have definite physical dimensions.  You can break or color (or melt!) them sometimes, but only to a limited extent.  You learn to work with the very few natural rules, but that with those you can create anything you want.  A building that turns into an airplane that drops a bomb that’s really a submarine?  No problem.  The only limiting factors are your resources (of which you can acquire more if you save up your paper route money) and your imagination and skill.  Learning to achieve goals when no one has assigned goals to you or methods for reaching them is the hardest thing for a schooled mind.  It’s also the most valuable.

Change

Lego builds are not permanent.  Siblings, friends, and mostly your own boredom drive you to tear down and recreate constantly.  It’s an open-ended system.  There is no once for all plateau or achievement.  There is no Lego graduation.  It’s a dynamic, non-linear world of possibility.  Whatever you have built can and probably will be changed into something better.  You’re never done.  That mindset is powerful, and a strong shield against dangerous status quo bias and constructivist notions of the individual and society.

This is all playful (all the best things are) and anecdotal.  If you want some deeper stuff about why playing with Legos or any other self-chosen activity is superior to textbooks and schools and teacher guided learning, check out the excellent work of Dr. Peter Gray.

Oh, and thanks mom.  You never had it in you to be an authoritarian task-master, and that’s opened up the world to me.

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*Update: Some readers seem to have a difficult time getting the general point because of the specific title.  The point of this post isn’t that always and everywhere for everyone Lego play is more valuable than algebra.  The point is that kids doing and learning things of their own choosing in their own way on their own time is more valuable than making them do stuff.  Most kids will prefer Legos to math.  Let them play Legos.  Some may prefer math to Legos.  Let them do math.

*Update 2: I just confirmed from a current Milwood resident that the Godsquirrel still exists. I knew he was immortal!  The source understandably wishes to remain anonymous. Squirrel mafias are nuts, and you never know what they might do.

*Update 3: Yes, I know. Technically they are called LEGO, and the plural of LEGO is LEGO. All caps. No “s”. I chose to write it as “Legos” because that’s what I played with darnit! As kids we said, “Let’s play (with) Legos”. And we did. I wrote this about my experience, and it would’ve seemed weird to me if you told me I was playing with LEGO. Sorry grammar and branding purists, this is my story…it’s all I have…can you let me have it?! (I mostly skipped English lessons in favor of the little plastic blocks as well. Blame LEGO.)

*If you like the topic, check out this post on why education should look more like bike riding, and browse through some of the other posts on education here.

*If you are a teen or you have a teen that’s interested in entrepreneurship, creative thinking, and out of the box living, check out the Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course!

Praxis Teen Entrepreneurship Course