Lego moments

lego bricks

Do you speak Lego?

Probably yes.

Lego is language without words. We can all do it.

The more I experience Lego the more I’m discovering its value as a creative approach to problem solving and change.

Lego is reminiscent of childhood and concepts of ‘play’. Academia still has snobby roots. For everyone willing to put preconceptions aside and engage in something a bit different, there’s those looking down their noses at what they see as a trivial, time wasting activity.

Last week Chrissi Nerantzi from CELT, MMU, came to Hull to run a Lego based workshop.  I’ve been exploring Lego for a while but but this session was different. Excuse the pun, but something clicked and it wasn’t just bricks fitting together. It was my snail.

two different snails made from lego bricks

It didn’t look like a snail. Lego does straight lines better curves but I knew it had snailness. My colleague next to me also built a snail. We didn’t consider the weirdness that of all the animals in all the world we’d chosen snails. Instead I was stuck by the difference. You couldn’t have had two snails less alike!

Up to that point I thought I’d understood. The build was the focus of attention (not the builder). I got the principles of connectivism, i.e. think with your hands. At my first workshop I’d sat next to Paul w

ho built a snail (a theme here). We talked about workload then I noticed the brick with a smile on the inner side of the snails leg (I know, snails and legs but it’s about the imagination!). Something was fundamentally reassuring about the hidden smile. I’d think about it in the months ahead. Like a mantra. Smile on the inside. It’s going to be ok.

yellow lego snail with smile on bricks

So what can Lego teach you?

Well, its cumulative. No doubt, next time I’ll learn something different but for now, here’s my list

  • Lego is about creativity and imagination but without needing artistic skills like music or drawing; just the dexterity to click bricks together. This means it can be exclusive, Facilitators need to consider the experience for anyone with physical or sensory impairment.
  • A Lego workshop is structured; it uses a defined and facilitated process which involves a developmental set of activities where Lego models represent metaphors (literal and conceptual) as the basis for narrative.
  • Participants are encouraged to express themselves through the different bricks (colour, shape, size etc) Lego has been described as 3D printing your thoughts.
  • The focus of discussion is the bricks, not the person. Tell me what the pink brick represents. Why are those three bricks on the top. What does the wheel represent.

Models can be literal (a snail which looks like a snail) or conceptual. My model was about snailness.  It wasn’t till then I realised I’d worried too much about making my models literal rather than expressive.  You need to let go of some inhibitions if Lego is to work its magic. Go with the flow. Trust your hands and click bricks together without a preconceived end point in mind. Your models will evolve as will your interpretations.

The model below shows three teaching styles. Each has a lecturer and students. Can you tell the difference?  It would be interesting to see how other people interpret them and now I’m thinking how can the principles of a Lego workshop be adapted for online distance students! Has anyone tried this?

three lego models representing teaching styles

So what is it about Lego?

80% of our brain cells are supposedly connected to our hands and with an allegedly hundred million ways (102,981,500!) to combine just 6×8-stud bricks, the possibilities are extensive.

In a group its often the few who do the talking. With Lego everyone gets turn. The focus is on the bricks not the person and this can feel liberating. The models also reinforce diversity; everyone starts with similar brick-sets yet models are wildly dissimilar.

lego people standing in rows

However, Lego is not for everyone.

It’s a step into the unknown. Lego works on different levels from day-to-day custom and practice and facilitators need to anticipate emotional responses if the experience goes below the surface, triggering unexpected thoughts or reactions. Most of us have complexity in our lives and frequently cope by shutting down that particular part of the mind or memories. Lego is like a key, reaching the parts other methods don’t. I’ve seen tears and resistance but also how it’s been a revelation for the initially reluctant.

lego bricks from pixabay

It’s clear Lego has powerful potential but where does it fit in these difficult days where teaching excellence rules but no one is really sure what it means and the dominant discourse equates measurement with value. Does the current obsession with data signal the end for innovative approaches to teaching and learning?  Is there risk where those working with data lack pedagogic knowledge so are measuring what they don’t understand. The sector is shifting back to didactic transmission (e.g lecture recording) with assessment re-branded as digital exams. Those from the student-as-producer/student as partner days, when interactive, research-engaged teaching and learning was first explored, are now being swept along in a data tsunami which tells us more about our socially constructed systems than our students.

hundreds of lego people

What we shouldn’t do with Lego is dismiss it as a pile of childishness with no place in a university. The contrary. A university is where the new and the different can safely be explored using alternative approaches to problem solving.

In this increasingly digital age, Lego offers time to put devices aside and do something as old as humanity itself;  building with our hands. This has the potential to tap into what Jung called the collective unconscious, the shared memory which stirs whenever we look up at the stars or sit around a fire at night. Even more, Lego offer structured opportunities to stop and think and these are rare. We live in increasingly frenetic times with fundamental challenges to truth and knowledge. I’d suggest moments with Lego are needed more than ever before.

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Lego images from pixabay or my own

 

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Ludic Lego and theory head

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I don’t mean to be repetitive but there’s something of a theme going on here – the Lego has been out again. It was the final catch-up for LLI and the TEL-Team at the University of Hull for this academic year.  These ‘catch-ups’ are less formal than ‘meetings’. The idea was a regular slot for sharing news on the digital front. Library and Learning Innovation are student facing while the TEL-Team are staff facing but we both deal with learning technology so it makes sense to share practice – with tea and biscuits.

So far there’s been a number of instances of ‘I didn’t know  that!’ Which was the original idea. Then we decided to alternate news swapping with a more in depth look at something we’re involved with.  Fresh from the Lego Serious Play workshop it was suggested I say a bit more about it. As the essence of LSP is learning by doing, it made sense to dig out the Lego from the attic.

It reinforced how much Lego has changed! While the large box of mixed bricks contained a bit of everything; people, horses, spaceships, wheels and some Technic, it wasn’t as bright or diverse as Lego is today. There was a lack of eyes and other features like trees, flowers and smiley bricks plus a distinct lack of pink and orange. Also it wasn’t as ‘clickable’. If you’re serious about Lego Serious Play then a trip to a Lego Shop and investing in some pick ‘n mix is probably the way to go. But it didn’t stop the innovation. We built towers and (aspirational) movable objects then focused on creating a digital learning environment. The outputs were diverse and insightful. Many incorporated the blurring between real and virtual e.g. how we are located in dual environments as both staff and students and need to find common ground for effective communication.

An extra advantage for me is the insight into the thoughts and research practices of colleagues in LLI. The PhD application is being processed and the theory head is coming back. Doctorates are lonely experiences so opportunities to share thoughts are always welcome. Tweets following the Lego session led me to the Collision of Two Worlds blog post  by Carl Barrow (typical of the serendipitous learning affordances of social media).  Carl’s library scenario parallels my thoughts around the duality of f2f and virtual teaching spaces, while Lee Fallin has generously shared some of his EdD research on space. The focus is library space but the broader theoretical framework which brings together Marxist and postmodernist perspectives has had me rummaging on my bookshelves for David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, blowing the dust from Best and Kellner and reflecting on the power and control of an anti-pm (ex) supervisor for controlling the direction of your research! Now I’m beginning to re-engage with theory, the ‘academic library’ perspectives of my LLI colleagues is really helping, not only with regard to my own work but adding a different and relevant HE perspective. Maybe we should arrange some regular research catch-ups as well!

Bricking it

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I haven’t played with Lego for years. I wasn’t even sure if it was ok.. Shouldn’t I be working through the TO DO list which, like the magic porridge pot, never stops, it keeps getting longer. I did feel guilty but the clue is in the word serious. This was a day about learning and teaching. If you haven’t taken part in a Lego Serious Play workshop here are some reasons to give it a try.

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Lego Serious Play is Seymour Papert’s ‘Constructionism’ in action. It’s no coincidence that Papert worked with Lego to develop its Mindstorm kits for building robots. You’re learning by making things with your hands and it’s experiential and reflective as well. These are powerful combinations.

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You share the day with educationalists from across the sector . There’s much to learn from teachers in schools and colleges. We should have these cross-over conversations more often.

You quickly learn the brickery is the smallest part if it. The real focus is the eclectic nature of educational practice.

You get to build and the colours and shapes are appealing. When was the last time you heard the clatter and click of a pile of Lego and were faced with limitless options to be creative?

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The range of Lego circa 2016 is amazing but it’s less about the modelling and more about the rationale. Build a tower. Build an animal. Build your ideal learning environment. What does action research look like in Legoland?

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Give someone a task. I had to sequence colours and sizes. In turn I asked for a digital device and was given a mouse. Yes it was fun but it was also a valuable leaning experience.

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The opportunity to do something different can be liberating but Lego places some restrictions on your imagination. It’s evolved hugely from the early days of white, red and green. In my tub were pink and orange  bricks. I had eyes, steering wheels and joysticks while the main table had boats, bikes, rocket parts and an endless range of characters. Nevertheless, you’re still more or less working with straight lines so ideas don’t always turn out as planned. Although part of the process is not to plan. Let your hands do the thinking and see what happens.  If your cat isn’t instantly recognisable as a cat but to you it’s a cat then it’s a cat and that’s that!  The purpose is why you chose it and how this connects to your understanding of learning and teaching.

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Plato is alleged to have said ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.‘ Education is about developing relationships with strangers and teaching involves finding ways to make things happen for other people. Ramsden described teaching as the art of making learning possible. Rather than knowledge transmission, it should be about understanding and reconceptualising while Biggs suggests constructive alignment to achieve higher order learning. Here, providing a variety of learning activities can help meet learning outcomes. Lego Serious Play is an activity with a difference but it works. The bricks are like alternative words. Click them together and see what happens. There’s no right or wrong way to build so it equalises and because it’s a different approach it offers alternative ways of seeing and understanding.

The photos on this page show something of the range of creative thinking and outputs. It may be time to get the Lego from the attic!

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The word Lego is from the Danish leg godt, which means ‘play well’ and we did, but without doubt this LEGO® Serious Play® is serious stuff!


Thanks to Chrissi Nerantzi and Stephen Powell from MMU. Further information about LSP workshops from http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/teaching/lego_sp.php  


Seymour Papert (1993) Mindstorms; Children Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Paul Ramsden (2003) Learning to Teach in Higher Education.

John Biggs and Catherine Tang (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Third Edition.