What do you want to learn?

Published by Bill Glover on (Updated: )

On the way to school one morning, my son and I found ourselves waiting longer than usual at a level crossing. He has always enjoyed standing by the barriers and guessing which direction the train will come from, but this wait was longer than usual. We began talking about what he’d been learning at school. Like many children, he doesn’t particularly enjoy being peppered with questions about his school day. And, like many parents, I’ve been looking for ways to vary the conversation.

I tried a different line of questioning.

“What do you want to learn that you aren’t already learning at school or at home?”

His reply was instant.

“I want to learn about gears, how they work.”

My earliest memories of gears come from the assorted boxes of Lego Technic that we had at home. But where do you go to buy Lego gears today?

I still enjoy Lego, but their sets are predominantly designed to be models. Their “box of bricks” sets tend to focus on colour and aesthetic. On Amazon I could find several bags of gears from dubious origin. Some appeared to be collections of used gears, others appeared to be look-a-like, Lego compatible, sets. If I was buying in bulk this might be attractive, but mixed reviews suggested I could end up with a bag of stripped or poorly fitting gears. On eBay you can buy Lego by the kilogram. I might do this in future, but it was too easy to get distracted by the sheer volume of lego available. I wanted something simpler.

I stumbled on the instructions for the Lego Education - Simple Machines set.

Lego Education

The Simple Machines set was released in 2011 and is no longer for sale by Lego. The newer Education sets tend to focus on motors, smarts and more complex topics. The more I looked at the Simple Machines set it was exactly what I wanted. It was overwhelmingly simple.

There is a strong market for used Lego Education sets, but the majority of sets were available in the US, going for $200+ including shipping to the UK. Luckily I managed to track down a charity shop selling an unopened version of the set for £22.

The Simple Machines set includes 204 pieces and the models are focused around four key topics associated with simple machines. The idea is that you first explore a topic and then you build and observe the associated model.

Principle Model
Gears Merry-Go-Round
Wheels and Axels Go Kart.
Levers Catapult
Pulleys Crazy Floors

We started by exploring Levers and then ended up putting our knowledge of levers into action by building a catapult.

The education sets are geared towards classroom use with resources available for lesson planning, classroom management tips and a mapping onto common educational curriculum stages. As a parent, you might be tempted to skip this and jump straight in to building models. I highly recommend the Overview, the Building Instructions and the Student Worksheet.

  • Overview (example) - covers language, discussion topcis, and examples of where you might find this machine in daily life
  • Building Instructions (example) - child friendly build instructions (a chance for you to stretch your legs)
  • Student Worksheet (example) - guides you, and the student, through key principles behind the machine

At this point you might feel like this all sounds a little close to home schooling, a little too formal or rigid. But we stuck with it, I printed out the student worksheet, read through the overview, set up a table and we picked our first lesson.

The Parent Overview

One of the most challenging things I’ve found as a parent is finding the right language to describe things. I’ve noticed that I tend to be vague or inconsistent in my descriptions. For example, when talking about gears on a Lego model I often find myself using phrases like these.

  • “The bigger gear”
  • “The gear on the left”
  • “No the other one”
  • “The gear that looks like this”

Whilst we get by, I’m limited in my vocabulary. I’m missing a golden opportunity to broaden our vocabulary and be more precise in our descriptions.

The Overview that comes with these Education sets includes a section on “Providing the Vocabulary”. I’ve found this to be invaluable. We can now talk about gears in more precise terms.

  • “The drive gear”
  • “The driven gear”
  • “The crown gear”
  • “The spur gear”

A brief aside: In trying to maintain a second language at home we’ve noticed that the best time to introduce vocabulary is at the point of interest in a topic. If we sit down to teach my son the vocabulary associated with coding, he may remember some of it. The majority will be forgotten only moments later. If my son was to ask about coding, and we were to use vocabulary from a second language to talk about it, this vocabulary sticks with minimal extra effort. The right time to introduce new words is at the point of natural interest.

The use of more precise language helped keep our focus on what we were doing. Each time we modified our model, we’d stop and see if we could identify the drive gear or the driven gear. These pauses required us to consider how the machine worked and gave a focus to understanding the model rather than just getting to the end of the instructions.

These parent/teacher overviews are short but brilliantly laid out. Even if you don’t end up talking about everything in the overview, they are a nice refresher for parents who have long since stopped worrying about how things like gears worked.

The Student Worksheet


The addition of a student worksheet may be a step too far for both parents and children alike. It gives everything a homework feel. But we both found that working through it increased the amount of fun we had with the models. Instead of just building the model, the worksheet provides some basic prompts to help explore the model. It encourages alterations to the models to explore how these changes impact the results.

  • How fast does it go?
  • How far does it go?
  • Can you measure it?
  • What happens if you turn it the other way?

When looking at why a larger gear might make a smaller gear turn faster, we were asked to count the teeth on each gear. The larger gear had 40 teeth and the smaller gear had 8 teeth. This was left hanging as just a matter of fact. The larger gear had more teeth.

But as the build progressed, we were counting the number of times the smaller gear rotated for each full rotation of the larger gear. “5!”, my son shouts. We check it again and yes it’s five. Again this is left hanging, a matter of fact.

But moments later, my son looks at me and says, “There are five eights in forty.” He may not fully appreciate the significance of this observation, preferring to rush ahead and see if we could make the gear turn even faster. But, I love how the worksheet provided just enough guidance to allow this observation to be made. At no point were we told how to work out how many revolutions we should expect. We were encouraged to build and observe, guided gently towards a conclusion.

As a parent it is so tempting to point out the answers, to jump to solutions. On a bad day we may even find ourselves getting frustrated that our children don’t see the answers as we see them. But this kind of guidance is hard. It’s a fine balance about revealing just enough to guide discovery. I’ve been referring to this as “curated learning”.

It wasn’t all counting gears and multiplication though. Whilst working through the worksheet on levers, my son and I ended up with a competitive catapult session. We were encouraged to turn our observations into a game and ended up flinging things across the kitchen. After each round we varied the model and occasionally varied the rules to make it a little harder. We broke the catapult, rebuilt it. We caused chaos with objects flying across the kitchen floor. We became competitive. The only non-negotiable rule was that we weren’t allowed to launch things at his younger brother.

We had so much fun.


You don’t see Lego Education sets available in the stores. They don’t get promoted to the casual buyer and are targeted primarily at classrooms. Many parents I’ve spoken to had no idea Lego did an Education range. I highly recommend it.

Bought new, the Lego Education sets are expensive. If you calculate the £/brick they don’t compare favourably with other Lego sets. But the supporting material that comes with these sets is incredible.

Many of these resources, including lesson plans and worksheets, are available online for free. So if you have an existing Lego collection you may find you already have what you need.

For a moment, forget £/brick as your metric for a good Lego set. Instead consider something like “shared hours of playful learning” per brick. These Education sets are unrivalled.

We did this for the fun of it. We aren’t working through an academic curriculum at home. I stumbled across the set because my son had asked about gears. But you might be wondering if any of the educational stuff worked. Did he (or I) learn anything? Several days later, my son pointed to a truck unloading bags of sand into a building site.

“I see two third class levers!”

I had to reach for my phone to remind myself what a third class lever was. Of course, he was right.

Even if we learned nothing, we ended up having hours of fun together. I have absolutely no doubt we’ll be working our way through many more of these lessons together. If you’ve worked through any of the Lego Education sets at home or are considering doing so, I’d love to hear from you.