An Interview with LEGO Education President Esben Staerk Jørgensen

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Esben Staerk Joergensen Interview
Note: He’s a lot taller than GeekMom Karen in real life. And her Kiddo made the LEGO Minifig of her which is why she chose this image. Kids are our future.

Getting to visit the Home of LEGO was more than just sitting and listening to LEGO Education. As part of the visit, LEGO Ed granted me the opportunity to speak with Esben Staerk Jørgensen, the President of LEGO Education. Sitting down with him, at the end of a long day for both of us, was the kind of pleasure you usually don’t expect from senior-level executives at international corporations.

How LEGO Education Works with Low Income Districts

As a former teacher, friend of teachers, and “reporter,” I can’t sit at a table and not ask the extremely important question, “How do you reconcile the high cost of the LEGO Education sets with the mission to reach as many children as possible?”

Let’s be straight here, I love LEGO Education, but the schools most in need of the tools are often those who cannot afford them. My upper-middle-class school district could easily afford one or more of each set. However, not five minutes up the road from where I live, the urban district whose kids could benefit even more than ours, would be unable to buy a single set for an individual school.

LEGO Education Research
Images Courtesy LEGO Education

To Jørgensen’s credit, he owned the fact that the sets are expensive while explaining the outreach they do. “We have a desire to reach all students, and to reach all students, we need to be sustainable. So when we look at the price we charge, the price is no more than we need to be sustainable. If we relied on grants, we would reach a lot fewer kids because we would quickly run out of money. We also see that our solutions are in both high-income but also more challenged areas. We work with schools to see if there are grants that they can apply for and support them in that process so that they can get the funding. Also, some of our solution architects can work with schools to see if there are ways we can adapt so that we can work with slightly fewer sets but get more out of that. They might work with solutions that can work across classrooms versus working for just a single classroom. Generally, it’s true to say we are in play across different classrooms as we want to do and we try to engage with those schools through those means to get them in the hands of children who need them.”

Why Jørgensen Joined LEGO Education –  to Make a Difference

True to the nature of LEGO’s corporate culture, Jørgensen explained that he started his career at an advertising agency in the late 1990’s, but found himself feeling personally unfulfilled. He was telling stories but wanted his work to matter more. He joined LEGO in 2000, ultimately, becoming a part of the LEGO Education family in 2016. As he noted, “I think at a fundamental level, the journey is also that element of making a difference. The LEGO journey is about building confidence in students and doing it for all students.”

Further, he explained his personal history and how his grandfather influenced his desire to be involved with education. As a child, Jørgensen’s grandfather would ask him where he sat in the classroom, worried to hear that Jørgensen was in the back of the room. Jørgensen explained, “The reason why that mattered to my grandfather was that, when he was in school, the kids in the front of the classroom were the smart kids that the teachers focused on while the kids in the back of the room were the ones that were considered the problem. Later in life, he worked for a boys correctional facility, and what he realized there was that those boys who were sitting in the back had lost confidence in themselves, they had been made to feel stupid and unworthy. And of course, if you don’t feel you can do anything, at least you can get in trouble. He also then found out that even though he wasn’t a licensed teacher, he did teach. It was about meeting those students where they are, build that confidence. They might fail to begin with, but then they will want to do more.”

Jørgensen Is A Parent, Just Like The Rest of Us

Sitting parent-to-parent, Jørgensen and I discussed how LEGO Education can help remediate the current helicopter parenting trend. While we both agree that educators need to be enabled, I asked Jørgensen how we can “disenable” harmful parenting methodologies. Educators lack resources, but they also, often, lack parental support. As a parent, Jørgensen lives the values that his LEGO Education promotes, explaining, “I sort of intentionally tried to – I don’t think it’s good to be the parent that’s always following up – because then he’s going to be dependent on that. There has to be the desire from the child.” With this in mind, I wanted to discuss how that parenting style is essential, particularly as compared to the over-involved parenting we often see.

Speaking parent-to-parent, I asked Jørgensen how he felt LEGO Education could un-do some of the harm over-involved parents do. In response, he echoed sentiments similar to my own, “I think that also goes back to success being measured on how well you do on a test. Then it becomes a smokescreen that isn’t a meaningful figure and doesn’t allow them to ask ‘what can we learn from that?’ Then you actually protect the children from reality, and you’re not actually building their resiliency. Because one day, the parent isn’t going to be there to tell you that everything is fine.” We live in a world where our children will hold multiple jobs and face challenges for which we will never be able to prepare them. Resiliency and failure are the skills necessary for success.

Jørgensen further noted, “For parents, it’s less about protecting kids from failures. It’s about what you can learn from it and how can you use it. Because I think if you go out in life that protected, I don’t think it creates reasoned confidence in their ability to challenge themselves. They are confident enough to be willing to fail to learn something. Ultimately, I think it’s a different definition of smart. I think it’s very binary.” The impact of standardized tests, something we assume only impacts our country, is ubiquitous. As parents, we want our children to succeed, but our current narrow definitions of success may be more harmful than we realize.

Further, when asked how LEGO Education can help “disenable” the “helicopter parents” (my term, not his!), Jørgensen explained, “It’s also about understanding the development of the child and the progress of the child. Then it’s understanding the fact that then the things that are challenging them, what can they get out of that. Focusing on the difference between “just a result” versus “the progress that has been made” can then create a link of value, which can enable that type of parental behavior. I think those forces can impact children.”

What I Learned from Esben Staerk Jørgensen

Anyone who reads my posts knows that I’m a little cynical, a little skeptical, and a lot hopeful. Sitting across the table from Jørgensen, I found myself continually sighing, contentedly.

I miss teaching. I miss it a lot. I miss the satisfaction on a student’s face when they finally grasp a skill. I miss the feeling of changing the world, even if it’s only one student every three months. I miss the feeling of making a difference in the world.

When I left teaching, I left a part of my identity behind. However, what I learned from Esben Staerk Jørgensen is that there is hope. Companies do exist that understand corporate and social responsibility is more than just an advertising campaign. Companies exist that want to enable our children, want to change the world, and want to help our kids be better than we are.

So, if I had to sum up the lesson I learned from my interview, it would be this:

Our future is brighter because of our children. Our world will be better because of our children. Our children will be better adults because there are people like Jørgensen and his LEGO Education team working to help our educators mold our kids into the change we want to see in the world.

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