Lego Mindstorms: How not to do technology in the classroom
September 4, 2014 | 12:26 pm
By Joanna Cabot
It pains me to write this, because I love the LEGO people so much. But I’ve wasted two hours of my life in possibly the worst teacher training I have ever attended, and I feel like all those pundits who wonder why teachers don’t use eBooks and apps and iPads better in the classroom might wonder a little less if they went through what I did today. Want to get your new technology into the schools? Take note, and don’t do it this way!
The first problem was, the trainer had too much stuff with her, and none of it worked correctly. Her personal laptop was too old to interface with our SMARTboard. We had laptops, but they were not charged, there were not enough outlets for all of us to use them as she wished them to be used, and they did not have the LEGO Mindstorms software pre-installed on them. When we tried to do this on the fly, we found we could not because we needed an admin password. By the time somebody finally tracked down the person who had it, we’d put in too many guesses and so were locked out of trying again.
The second problem was with the LEGO equipment itself. The kits were all mixed up. Some had several motors, some had none at all. Only a few of the kits still had the rubber bands. One kit had nearly all the minifig heads, and a different one had an abundance of the feet. I blame the kit design for this. If they had made the containers with numbered slots, like a tackle box, it might have been easier for the kids to put everything back. The present ‘flimsy four-slot working tray crammed into a single tub of mixed pieces’ doesn’t lend itself to keeping everything tidy and visible. It’s too easy for kids to just shovel everything back in there. Most of the boxes we looked at had pieces that were clumped in partially assembled—or more likely, partially disassembled—states.
I hear your rebuttal right now. You are wondering why the teachers didn’t make them put it all away correctly. To that, I say the teacher was probably trying to get them out the door for recess when the activity ended, and considered it a success that she wasn’t spending her lunch break picking tiny LEGO pieces off the floor. The thing that non-teacher ‘curriculum developer’ types often forget about is the sheer volume of kids. I have written about this before with the iPad thing. Sure, keeping one of them smoothly running and all up-to-date is pretty small business. But keeping fifteen of them going? At ten minutes a week per iPad, that’s over two hours of prep! Many teachers simply don’t have that kind of time, nor do they have time to dump out 15 bins of Lego and part them all out according to the diagram. It’s simply not realistic.
And that was not the first unrealistic expectation that the LEGO trainer brought to this little enterprise either. Case in point: she firmly explained that before we could begin any activities with the kids, we should ensure that each of them had a bin of LEGO and their own computer. Tentatively, we clarified what she meant by that. I explained that when we last used these kits, we actually had the children sharing, two kids to one computer. She was horrified. We further explained that we had a lab setup only in one classroom, and its use by other classes was heavily scheduled and was limited to times that class was out at other specialties. We did have some laptops available, but only six—enough, in other words, for one class to sign them out and share them one per pair. But certainly not enough for one per kid…
At this point, I tried to be helpful and pointed out that there were paper booklets too. These obviously could not be used for the computer programming part. But that part only started once you had the model built anyway, so if access to the computers was an issue, you could shave a good hour off the time you’d need them for by building the model with the paper booklets first. The instructor was aghast. No, no, no, we were not understanding. One LEGO kit per kid, and one computer to go with it. That’s what you needed before you got underway.
It is exactly these sorts of specs that turn a teacher off of using tools like this. If they are already finding the use of this technology intimidating, then telling them they should not even bother unless they have the best-case equipment is just giving them an excuse to give up. Well, we don’t have enough computers to do it, they’ll say. So, we don’t have to. We’ll do something else for science instead. And another generation grows up lacking in skills in this area. If the instructor had presented her best-case wish list, but then acknowledged that it was just that—a best case, not an only case—I would have felt a lot better about this program. As is, I think she is just inviting people to decide it’s too much bother. And really—they can share. They can. It’s not a big deal.
So at this point, an hour into this whole enterprise, we were at about twenty minutes of lecturing about how bad we all were, and another thirty or so signing out laptops, trying to find power plugs for them, trying to get them set up correctly—and being unsuccessful at this—and another twenty half-heartedly looking at some random LEGO pieces that some, but not all of us, had. Sensing the she had reached the point of diminishing returns, the instructor thinned the herd down to a size that could realistically run the lesson off of her personal laptop by dismissing everyone who would not be teaching Grade 1 or higher this year. With the mass exodus of kindergarten and specialty teachers went French teacher me, the one person who has actually used this kit before.
Well played, LEGO people. Well played.