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 who built a snail (a theme here). We were talking about the weight of heavy workloads when I noticed the brick with a smile on the inner side of the snails leg (I know, snails don’t have legs but lego can involve some imagination!) There was something fundamentally reassuring about the hidden smile in the context of the conversation and I think about it often. 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.  I realised I’d worried too much about making my models literal rather than expressive.  You need to let go of some inhibitions for Lego is to work its real magic. Go with the flow. Trust your hands. Click the 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.

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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#HEblogswap My PhD Journey by Chrissi Nerantzi

blogswap logo with image of Chrissi Nerantzi

Bought to you from Chrissi Nerantzi, Principal Lecturer in Academic CPD at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, MMU.   


Thank you Santanu Vasant (@santanuvasant) for bringing #HEblogswap to life. It is a great way to share and connect experiences among practitioners.

Doing something in tandem with Sue Watling (@suewatling) came to my mind as soon as I received the information. We first met at Lincoln University in 2012 during an HEA OER Change Academy project. Since then we both changed institutions. But we stayed in touch, have worked together in the open and are both PhD students. When Sue invited me to write about my PhD journey for this blog swap, I thought do I really want to reflect on the experience of the last 4.5 years at this moment in time? I just survived my viva last Friday. Everything was still very fresh in my mind… I decided to go ahead and am looking back not at the whole experience but specific aspects of it.

Ok, how did it all start?
When I was an academic developer at the University of Sunderland, I started an MSc at Edinburgh Napier University in Blended and Online Education. My dissertation brought me to experiment with academic development initiatives that had a cross-institutional and collaborative dimension. I immersed myself into this study. The seeds for my doctoral study are in there and for the many open projects that followed. I was encouraged to consider a PhD by my personal tutor. That was then Dr Keith Smyth was leading the programme and who moved to a different institution and is now a Professor. The PhD I started was at a distance, part-time, self-funded, while working full-time and with a young family. Even before I started it was evident that it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. In fact it became a rollercoaster ride. There were ups and downs… Good times and bad times. I will focus only on a few aspects of the journey today.  

highs and lows of a PHD journey

Closing my eyes and transporting my self back in time, the following fills my mind…

Loneliness
Community, or the lack of community, during the first years. I felt lonely and in the dark for a long time. I had no cohort, no peers to turn to. I was doing this study on my own and really felt it. It was hard, super hard. I missed the conversation with peers, other PhD students. People I could share my struggles with and my ideas. The lifeline came when I joined the Global OER Graduate Network for PhD students in open education from around the world. A project led by the Open Education Research Hub at the Open University in the UK. The network literally saved me and helped me grow and believe in what I was capable to do. The network has a face-to-face and online dimension and both are equally important. My own research has illustrated the importance of community in the context of professional learning. Find your network and if there isn’t one consider creating one. My colleague Penny Bentley did exactly that. She needed help with phenomenography, the methodology we both used in our study and decided to create a FB group, which has become a small but useful hub for phenomenographers, where we can support each other. So a sense of belonging was important to me and when I found my home as a PhD students, I started growing and gaining confidence in who I was and what I could achieve. 

Oh, no, what time is it?
There were time pressures from work, my studies and often I felt that I neglected my family. I felt guilty. Guilty for coming home switching on the laptop and working. Guilty for working during many many weekends and holidays. “Mummy will you get that PhD?” Is a question that my boys often asked. I needed to be disciplined, determined and stubborn, I guess, to keep going and bring this study to fruition. The discoveries I made during the study fascinated me, helped me to look beyond time. I did find time where there was none. In the end everything came together. It was an exhilarating process and I wanted to share my findings with others. I started sharing my work in progress with others through conferences and articles but also used my learning to develop open initiatives. Some might thing/say that these were distractions but in reality they helped me test some of my ideas and were invaluable for my development as a researcher and practitioner. I could do all this as my study was linked to my work. Some might not have this opportunity. 

Writing is super hard!
It is one thing to do the research and another to write about it and articulate it so that it makes sense and is appropriate for a thesis. I am not an English native speaker, so conducting the whole research in English was not easy. However, I am not sure if it would be any easier in Greek or German, as my professional language is actually English. Whatever the language, academic writing does not come naturally to me. My background in teaching languages and translation literature, means that some of that more playful flavour was making its way into the thesis. What helped me was sharing early drafts with colleagues and friends. Even my husband read multiple versions… They could see much quicker what didn’t make sense, what needed to be explained better… Write everyday a little bit, set realistic targets so that you get a sense of achievement. Stick to the routine. Write, write and rewrite. We are all getting better at it through writing. I accepted criticism and learnt through this process. More recently, I have started helping other PhD students unofficially and I can see that I have grown and can help others. Something else, I did to get a break from academic writing… I started writing children’s stories again, especially near the end when I was preparing my thesis for submission.     

There were sunny times too
Some might get the impression that it was all a struggle… Yes, there were moments when I thoughts this is never going to happen. But I kept going. My supervisors kept saying “keep going”. I kept going. They were right, I got there in the end and much sooner than the supervisory team expected. And the feeling was amazing. You just need to get through the challenges and you will. A massive portion of determination and stubbornness is of course needed. And support! So so vital. Becoming a member of a  community really helped me and filled my batteries with determination and self-belief. I can do this and so can you. 

Viva o’clock
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just had my viva on the 8th of September. There were many moments where I thought this day would never come. But it did. Today, I feel a real sense of achievement and can see that I have contributed a little something that can make a difference to my own practice and help others consider collaborative open learning in cross-institutional academic development settings through the cross-boundary framework I developed and released under a creative commons license and the specific new insights I have gained into collaborative open learning and the course characteristics that play a key role in shaping that experience. If you would like to read about my viva experience, the preparation I have done for it, check out https://chrissinerantzi.wordpress.com/2017/09/09/i-have-survived-big-friday-go_gn/ and related posts to the viva.

I hope some of these reflections on the journey will be useful for other PhD students, potential and current ones, especially those at the initial stages of their studies.

If you need help, remember to reach out! I think this is key!
Through the PhD journey you will discover who you are and who you are becoming.

I hope some of the above will be useful for you.

If you would like to get in touch with me, feel free to tweet me at @chrissinerantzi.