Hans Rosling’s creative teaching technologies – realia, boxes, Lego

I’m thinking through how useful I find using small manipulable toys like cuisinaire rods and Lego to visualize information, to explain and teach things in a small classroom, for example in one-to-one training. Recently I’ve joined a group exploring the terrain of using Lego, and so I’m thinking back to how I have used these tools with various clients over the years.  Now I’ve stumbled upon a video of Hans Rosling using Lego, an opportunity to ponder quietly what the effect is on the learner.

Hans Rosling is unquestionably one of the best international presenters in the world, having captured the visual essence of development in his moving bubble charts (Gapmminder).But he’s also given  a mind-blowing presentation of progress using a washing machine. He has presented using Ikea boxes, and now, in a new video, he uses Lego. First, here are the three presentations with realia, boxes and Lego:

Washing machine:

Ikea boxes:


I frankly really appreciate the use of real life realia, they evoke emotion the way a multifunctional building toy simply can’t. I use things or at least pictures of things quite a lot. Saying that one abstract box represents one thing and placing it next to an identical other box representing a different thing places additional cognitive load on the viewer. That can be good or bad, depending on whether the load is rewarded in some way. It helps if you add visual distinction to the box, the way Hans Rosling does with the realia he pulls out of his Ikea boxes, like some magician. That adds a lovely element of play and surprize.

Bare Lego on the other hand without playing clown or dress-up will divide the public. It can be charming to those with happy memories of the building toy, or with lots of practice building with their kids. That charm can be harnessed to focus attention. I think, however, that the blocks need to be very well connected visually to stories as they are told. I once saw Mark Powell use cuisinaire rods that way, and it got me down the road of storytelling with little blocks and rods. I’ve found that once those stories start to materialize and are understood, there is a creative spark that you can kindle and develop as you hand things over, step by step, to the students. And then I think the additional cognitive load is actually exactly what you need, because the learners are more engaged and working harder at the same time.

Beyond that, however, what these presentations show me at least is that it’s easy to visualize the big picture with simple tools, or to tell a simple story, but to see and remember the details, e.g. ratios between groups or development over time, and in fact figures of any kind, you really need graphics. Nothing replaces complex graphics for communicating complex data, and in turn relating that, when it is well done, to a big idea.