The mysterious philosopher in Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World defines Lego as the "most ingenious toy in the world." When Sophie rediscovers a bag of abandoned Lego blocks in a closet, she remembers her childhood and the thrills of endless possibilities offered by this clever toy.
With Lego blocks, the same pieces can be assembled and reassembled into objects, prompted and limited only by one's imagination. Thus, a castle today becomes a spaceship tomorrow, and a spaceship may easily morph into a fire engine by reassembling the same pieces in a new configuration.
However, Lego is much more than a building toy that comes in defined packages with step-by-step instructions, calling for the replication of an already imagined or popularized object.
For example, offer a collection of random Lego blocks to a group of students with the daunting and challenging task of creating a new written language system. They can come up with their own Lego alphabet, where each specific block or piece represents a sound or sounds in speech. Thus, students can also develop new modes of "writing" with these Lego symbols, as the blocks may have various ways to be connected. These types of activities also offer opportunities for engaging classroom discussions about the ways language work or how languages develop.
Creative Lego constructions can also be used as instructional tools to illustrate abstract concepts or ideas. Instead of using PowerPoint slides—which are often oversimplified, poor visual aids—consider building a three-dimensional object that best represents, for example, the ideas and workings of Vygotsky's theory of the zone of proximal development or any other concepts related to a given academic field. Also, asking students to explore abstract or symbolic concepts with the use of Lego blocks engages their whole body and provides opportunities for collective creativity and collaboration.
As a storytelling device, Lego can also enhance visual and multimodal literacy skills. I often ask students to create scenes or illustrations for the stories they explore in the classroom. Sometimes they will use Lego blocks to create a version or adaptation of an existing story or to build scenes from new stories they've created. With simple, easy-to-use applications and tools, students can create virtual or physical picture books with the use of Lego. Similarly, an inexpensive tripod and a smartphone can allow students to use stop-motion animation to produce and share short films or movie trailers for books.
In addition, Lego's visual building manuals are among the best guides to aid the process of assembly. They function as a universal language without the need for one's ability to read written text. Students can use these manuals as a model to produce virtual building manuals for their own Lego products, and by doing this they improve their skills of visual communication.
Lego is inherently a creative medium. If we value the use of imaginative classroom engagements to instigate divergent thinking, play, and problem solving, Lego blocks deserve a distinguished place in our instructional toolbox.
Csaba Osvath is a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida, pursuing literacy studies with a special focus on qualitative methods and arts-based research. His research explores the epistemological and pedagogical roles/functions of artmaking in the context of literacy education.
Csaba Osvath will present a workshop titled "Reimagining Literacy Through Lego" at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, held in Orlando, FL, July 15–17.