Need an inspirational video? How about one that shows kids making, not selling

If you haven’t seen the GoldieBlox commerical making the viral social media rounds, then you should check it out.

The commercial is for GoldieBlox, a company that wants to “…inspire the next generation of female engineers” with a series of building toys and storybooks.  I’m struggling to present this in as neutral a light as possible, because I have hugely mixed feelings about both the toys and the commercial.

GoldieBlox1. The toys. I saw Goldie Blox and The Spinning Machine debut at Maker Faire. The toy consists of a plastic plate that you can place spindles on, and loop a ribbon around the spindles. You can put the figurines on the spindles and when you pull the ribbon they spin around.  The product website says, “GoldieBlox will nurture a generation of girls who are more confident, courageous and tech-savvy, giving them a real opportunity to contribute to the progress made by engineers in our society.”

Really? I guess I just don’t see it. What I do see is over-the-top hype that playing with a particular toy will change society — even if the toy has been designed after “… a year researching gender differences, talking with Harvard neuroscientists, and observing children’s play patterns.” It’s a toy, and not even one that looks like it has lasting play value. And you might say, kids will use their imagination to extend the play value, well then that’s fine. I agree kids might like it. But let’s not go crazy here – it’s a toy, not a cause.

2. The commercial. Honestly, who can be upset to see kids playing like they show in the video? It’s a lovely production. Of course those kids didn’t actually build that contraption, right? It’s as false an image as a photoshopped model selling “true beauty.” But it’s an effective message nonetheless, showing kids being creative in a way that I wish lots of kids could be. And yes, I would imagine that this would be a good kickoff to giving kids a modern idea of a Rube Goldberg machine, it’s fun, visual, great music, etc. It doesn’t give the impression that you MUST have this particular toy to make something cool, so it could easily be inspiring to someone who doesn’t have the toy. All to the good.

So now, what does this mean for education? I’ve seen educators raving about this as an example of “youth voice” and I think that’s simply not even close. Dean Shareski and Gary Stager reject this aspect of the reaction to the commercial and I agree with them both. This is not youth or student voice, it’s a message designed, created, and produced by adults. An effective message, yes, but not the voice of youth.

Should educators show this video to inspire classrooms to build and make? I’m not 100% enthusiastic. Part of this is the commerciality and use of kids as window-dressing rather than the actual makers. If you want a video that shows a Rube Goldberg type device that looks to me like a kid may have actually participated in the building, try this: Audri’s Rube Goldberg Monster Trap

The Girls Question: So I’ve been avoiding the “is it good for girls” question up to this point. I’m a girl. I’m an engineer. Shouldn’t I be cheering??

But I have mixed feelings about this too. Of course more girls should be encouraged and supported to become engineers, scientists, mathematicians, or Rube Goldberg machine inventors. Of course, of course, of course. But I don’t feel like handing the argument over to a sales presentation like this is the right answer. The girls in this video reject the message to buy “princess” products as they are simultaneously selling another product. Do I have to like this?

I always have a knee jerk reaction about things marketed as a “solution” to some social/cultural issue. In general, they play on folk myths about culture, and by communicating those myths (even as they refute them), perpetuate that myth. So the fuss over a video proclaiming how girls have the power to do this or that actually reinforces the fact that everyone knows that they don’t. Otherwise, the video would be seen as mundane. If it was true and widely accepted that girls had equal opportunity to become engineers, then the rebellious lyrics refuting that claim wouldn’t make sense. So in a weird way, saying “yes, girls CAN be engineers” only makes sense when we acknowledge the world thinks they can’t.

So I think that educators who show this in class need to do some additional work. I wonder if some of that can be found in the literature about how to reverse stereotype threat. This is the theory that if people are exposed to prevailing stereotypes that predict success or failure in a given task, they will actually fulfill the promise of that stereotype, good or bad.

The “antidote” to stereotype threat is thought to be talking to the people/kids about the stereotype and that they have to power to not live up (or down) to that stereotype. In a way, this is similar to growth mindset.

So using the video might be followed up at some point with a conversation (age appropriate, of course) of why some people see girls as being less capable, and how that’s not true.

But I’m not sure that loading the preparation of a making activity with a message about gender bias is valuable. What are the boys supposed to think – should they be guilty, or maybe wonder if it’s true that they actually ARE better than the girls? I’d rather let the making commence and deal with the issues of making sure that all students are having a valuable experience. If you need an inspirational video, how about finding one that shows actual kids making, not selling.

But at other times after you’ve got the making going, maybe as a wrap up activity, I think this video could be a really great discussion starter. Why does society think that girls should only play with dolls and boys with trucks? Why is pink a girl’s color? Why do we care if girls can or can’t be engineers. What if a boy wants to wear a dress or knit? Is it bad if a girl likes princesses? What kinds of things are girls supposed to do vs. what boys are supposed to do? Has this always been true? Is this true around the world?

The topics of gender imbalance, equality, equity, sexism, history and culture are accessible to even young children without pounding them in the head with “girls rule!!” messages designed mainly to sell them stuff.

This just in – a lawsuit has been filed by the Beastie Boys (who wrote the original song in the video ) suing GoldieBlox over using their intellectual property without permission. GoldieBlox has filed a complaint alleging that the commercial is parody (the lyrics were modified) and therefore permitted under “Fair Use”.

I smell a digital citizenship lesson!

5 thoughts on “Need an inspirational video? How about one that shows kids making, not selling”

  1. I agree with your feelings on this – you mentioned that the video could be used to start good discussions, and I agree with that, also – however, how likely is it that a highly hyped “popular” video will be received and understood in that way by most of the people who are likely to show it? I’m definitely not a fan of making things pink or calling things “good for girls” as these are all just flair. Stereotype threat is something every educator should have to learn and understand before they ever walk into a classroom, and that is for the good of all of their students.

  2. Thanks for writing the critique- I really wanted to love the commercial, but a) it’s a commercial, and b) exactly what you said above. 🙂

    Also, I’m disappointed in the Beastie Boys for suing for copyright infringement, considering they built their early career by relentlessly sampling other artists (in a good way) and then later getting sued for copyright infringement (see this article, for example).

  3. Thanks for this. I was ambivalent about how I felt about the Goldiblocks ad, you nailed it! BTW I shared your slidedeck on tinkering with my grad class in educational technology in my class blog, just wanted you to know, I did acknowledge it was yours. You can see the post here – http://bit.ly/1jxTlnN

  4. I agree, Sylvia! The lawsuit filed by the Beastie Boys – http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/beastie-boys-girls-viral-video-659308 – is definitely a digital citizenship lesson in the making. Since the article includes the four factors a judge would use in determining fair use (“the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion taken and the effect of the use upon the potential market”), it’s a great invitation for students to discuss, debate, and follow an actual case. Your thought-provoking piece adds a few more important layers to the messiness of this particular case.

    Thanks for sharing.

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