Lego blocks and embodied learning

by Phil on March 21, 2011

At this year’s Games to Learn (G2L) conference Siobhan Reddy from Media Molecule talked about Little Big Planet (LBP). She began her talk looking at the things the team at Media Molecule had in common from their childhood, things like Lego, Take Hart and the Commodore 64 and it got me thinking about what role the Lego block had played in my formative years.

Camels and Gears
I started thinking about ‘red eighters’, ‘white oners’ and ‘blue long sixers’ and all the basic building blocks we played with as kids (and sometimes still do). Had this effected the way I thought about the world and how I categorised things? Did it predispose me to notice these patterns (and patterns in general) and to feel comfortable with variable names like ‘redEighter’ and ‘blueLongSixer’ as used in programming software?

I don’t know for sure, but it at least seems possible. Maybe it’s got more to do with the possibility that our brains are already predisposed to pattern recognition and so Lego is a very natural medium for a young mind.

Seymour Papert seems to make a similar observation in his 1980 book Mindstorms (the title of which was later used for the Lego robotics system). In the forward he describes how as a child he became captivated by how gears worked when he played with ‘erector sets’ (like Meccano) and how this shaped his thinking to such an extent that when learning arithmetic, and later maths, at school, he couldn’t help but think in terms of the ratios and differentials of gearing systems.

Embodied Cognition
In my PhD research, I’ve been exploring the concepts behind what is variously called embodiment, embodied mind or embodied cognition. In many regards embodiment stands as a counter balance to the predominance of the social constructivist theories of learning that have dominated education during the later half of the twentieth century. Theories of embodiment remind us that there is a large portion of our learning about the world that comes from our direct individual (subjective) experience of being in the world – our embodied experience. That the mind is inextricably bound up in a body and it is through this body that we come to know the world.

It’s been easy to forget (or ignor) this, when we are so immersed in a culture heavily influenced by the Cartisian dualism of mind and body separateness and the rationalist focus on abstract concepts, that we have in modern western societies.

While phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty were talking about this more than half a century ago, it is really only in the last decade or so that the idea of embodiment has started to have a really big impact on theories of mind. This has largely come about as a result of the realisation by computer scientists that ‘rational’ models of the mind are inadequate when in comes to developing artificial intelligence, and the ability of neuroscientists to start to see some of the workings of the brain using fMRI.

Embodiment looks like it’s going to have some interesting implications for how we think about learning in the 21st Century.

Metaphors and Abstract Thinking
The work of Lakoff & Johnson has shown us that, contrary to the rationalist perspective, our understanding of abstract concepts is very much rooted in embodied experience. When ever we try to talk or think about abstract concepts, we always have to invoke metaphor to bring the abstract back to experience. An interesting question this raises, is what is the connection between maths and language learning?

Emotional Rationality
Damasio, in his book Self Comes to Mind, describes the intimate relationship between mind and body and how it affects our thinking. In his book Descarte’s Error he shows us how important emotion is to rational thinking, belying the myth of the rationalists that rational thought, unencumbered by emotion can lead to better thinking (Star Trek already showed us this in the character of Spock, but now we have the evidence). Does this mean we cannot succeed at maths, if we can’t first deal with our emotions?

Play and Novelty
The neuroscientists Pellis & Pellis have shown us what Anna Freud already suspected, that play is fundamental to learning how to manage our emotions. Their work supports Sutton-Smith‘s hypothesis that play is about seeking imbalancing situations (or as he puts it seeking the disequilibrial). Does this mean that before we teach maths, we should first encourage play (not just soft play, but play that can be challenging, even upsetting)?

Language and Storytelling
The Neural Theory of Language (NTL) put forward by Feldman offers an insight to how embodiment might be not only be at the heart of how we experience and come to know about the world, but how we think and communicate that understanding. Schank and Abelson hypothesis that how we remember and think isn’t just embodied experience, but that it is fundamentally structured in story form. They believe we can’t properly memorise or recall something unless we make a story out of it. To know and understand something is to have a story about it. Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising if we think how culturally knowledge has been passed down by storytellers of myth, parable and fable long before the written word appeared (chances are story has been part of human evolution since language probably appeared more than 250,000 years ago (maybe even 1,000,000) – the written word only appeared just over 5,000 years ago). Indeed many successful educators have long recognised the power of a good story to aid learning (Denning, Haven, the Heath brothers, the Storyline method). Does this mean, if we think in story form, the best way to teach is using stories?

Building and Understanding
What about that Lego brick that brought me here in the first place? Siobhan told us that everyone who worked on Little Big Planet (LBP) had played with Lego as a child. That experience of playing with Lego seems to’ve somehow been encoded in to LBP. There seems to be something powerful about LBP that educators have picked up on and that Media Molecule and Sony are trying to make sense of. Maybe it has something to do with embodied experience, play and telling stories. Maybe LBP speaks directly to what it is to be human?

As Feynman famously said “What I cannot build, I cannot understand”.

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Phil March 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Also check out Henry Jenkins interview with James Gee http://henryjenkins.org/2011/03/how_learners_can_be_on_top_of.html

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