Over the holidays, I got a chance to spend a day at home, with nothing to do other than build a large LEGO model of the Millennium Falcon. As I was building it, the details that were part of the build helped to bring back memories from books, movies, and games. Being able to manipulate elements that were previously only imagined was, for a Star Wars geek, very rewarding. It got me thinking though, what if I wasn’t attached to the object I was building in any way, and I just had to complete the steps to achieve a result? What if this was a task that had been assigned as so many are in schools everywhere. Jump the hoops, check the boxes, move on.
In this context, if the builder of the model didn’t know what the end result would be, the assignment would be much more difficult, as there would be no way to estimate how close one would be to a final result, or significant checkpoint. If this were a story, this would be akin to knowing what happens in the end – SPOILERS – and that wouldn’t really do. But stories do foreshadow events to allow people to see how things will fit together. During the build of The Falcon, this foreshadowing was there when each stage showed what it would look like when it was completed.
Part of this foreshadowing included holes. Gaps in the model or story where you knew things were going to go/happen, but where the details are not revealed. A simple model or story would have few if any holes, but a more complex story would have these arranged in such a manner that they would contribute to the overall experience. Sometimes these holes are for small details that may not have an impact overall, but that enrich some element for those who would care to look further. Details like chairs that can only be seen when the model is open; a state that it would likely rarely be in once completed.
Beyond the foreshadowing that helps a story, and a build move along, I noticed there was another important element. There needed to be some way to manage the tedium associated with the basic building blocks. Elements that repeat with little if any variation are important, but can so easily be lumped together at the start of the process and labeled as “basics”. In a classroom, these could be those rote skills like spelling or multiplication; in a build, they could be exterior panels. During the build of The Falcon, these “boring” micro builds were spaced through the process and were always in context. I noticed this when I thought I knew more than I did and I built a number of similar pieces, only to find out that there were small, but significant differences that I had missed. The context was vital. Having an authentic context for classroom building blocks should work the same way. Spelling words properly is great, but outside of a sentence, that spelling may or may not be correct or appropriate. The build kept these elements in context and it helped, as you would assume, to tell the story of what is being created. This is different from other builds like IKEA, where subunits are often assembled out of context and then brought together to create a functional whole, but not after at least one subunit is installed backward, necessitating sometimes considerable rework, and breaking the flow.
It’s really not hard to see how/why people describe both builds and stories as being layered. There are many similarities between the two processes, and when done well, they can be used to teach those involved complex ideas in a manner that is accessible and engaging.