Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Lego Movie and Genius Hour

#geniushour My twitter handle is @tklein11

I'm not the only teacher using Genius Hour.  Joy Kirr has compiled a very extensive Live Binder list of teachers using a version of Genius Hour their classrooms and resources for teachers and students.  There is clearly a movement going on.  What type of movement is it?  What are its origins?  Where else does the movement show up?  To find out, let's start in an unexpected place: The Lego Movie.

Over President's Day weekend, I saw The Lego Movie at the Mall of America. I loved it and disliked it simultaneously.  I loved it because I love Legos.  I also disliked it, however, because it vilified what I will call the "direction followers."  When I was young (and sometimes not-so-young) and built my Legos, I followed the directions.  I found it thrilling to create order out of the jumbled mess of pieces strewn across the floor.  I found it even more thrilling to complete Legos' original Pirate series, which was capped by the completion of El Dorado fortress during a very memorable Christmas.  (The previous sentence was exclusively for my mom and sister.)  In the Lego movie, however, it is those who do not follow the directions or care about completeness and order who are celebrated.  The heroes of the movie are those who follow their intuition, instincts, and passion to create whatever their heart can feel and their mind imagine.  Direction followers like myself are the bad guys because of our legalistic enthusiasm for the directions and our lack of creativity.   Thus, the The Lego Movie highlights a contrast between order and logic on one hand and imagination and passion on the other.  This juxtaposition is best illustrated in eighteenth and nineteenth century European intellectual culture.

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that flourished in eighteenth century Europe, especially among the bourgeoisie (roughly today's middle class) and aristocracy.  Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophes (a French term), believed that reason and rational thought were the keys to understanding and improving all aspects of humanity.  Philosophes believed it was possible to organize and categorize all the knowledge in the world.  They wanted to create order out of chaos and complexity and they produced many great advances such as the Encyclopedie, American Independence, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill or Rights, modern republicanism, the street pattern of Washington, DC, the grid pattern of Iowa and the Midwest, and the French Revolution. I am a self-described "Man of the Enlightenment."  When I first learned about the Enlightenment in undergrad, I had an a-ha moment and realized, "this is me."  Just like the philosophes, I valued logic, reason, order, organization, completeness, symmetry, and so on.  Thus, my desire to impose order on my Lego sets and follow the directions is very much rooted in characteristics that the philosophes valued.  The Enlightenment was not, unfortunately, a panacea.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Romanticism (this is distinct from what I call romance-icism) emerged in response to the more negative aspects of the Enlightenment, especially the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.  From September 1793-July 1794, supporters of the Revolution, many of whom were trained in Enlightenment thought, executed 50,000 or so of their political opponents, most famously via the guillotine.  Those who observed the Reign of Terror with horror noted the danger the cold rationality of Enlightenment thought could have.  Though they emerged from the same social and economic milieu as their Enlightenment predecessors, romanticists believed that humanity was about passion, imagination, and intuition--not a heartless adherence to a political philosophy.  They believed that the source of truth in the world was found within each individual, not in a political ideology.

The best example of Romanticist philosophy, ironically comes not from nineteenth century, but from 2014. Currently, Apple is airing this iPad Air commercial linked here and called "Your Verse." Watch it now!

Romanticists in the nineteenth century believed in the "powerful play," their preferred medium was poetry, and they believed that passion was at the heart (pun intended) of humanity. In modern popular culture, The Lego Movie urges its audience to use their imagination to create from within, rather than suffer the confinement of following directions from without.  In modern technology, the iPad, an instrument of science, is re-imagined into the tool of an artist.  The ideology of romanticism is powerful, eternal, and can show up in a variety times and places.

And finally, we get back to Genius Hour.  The iPad commercial concludes with: "The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.  What will your verse be?"  Genius Hour is about students following their passions and sharing their interests and causes with their peers and, hopefully, the world.  For four days a week they are following the "Lego directions," but on the fifth day they are creating whatever they can imagine.  My students who are diving deeper into the impact of the smallpox vaccine, the problems of poaching, cattle breeds from around the world, how to end bullying, and the significance of Youtube are certainly contributing their verse.


  1. Very compelling post! I am leaning more toward providing my students this opportunity for passion in my Science classes (just haven't committed to it yet).

    Thanks for this food for thought.

  2. I think we need to follow the directions for much of our lives. Following directions teaches us so much! Thanks for this thoughtful post - I still follow directions, but I'm learning to jump in with my students and jump ship every now and then... :)