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.


Lego images from pixabay or my own


From Lego to Minecraft; alternative approaches to learning and teaching

A discussion on a Jisc mail list (ALDinHE; the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education) is promoting the use of LEGO® and LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.  I am intrigued. Not because I’m any good with making things, it’s more about interest in new concepts for old problems.

My first encounter with Lego was this explanation of SOLO Taxonomy. It worked for me. I was also interested in Carina Buckley’s paper Conceptualising plagiarism; using Lego to construct students’ understanding of authorship and citation which describes making visible the ‘underlying theoretical philosophy of referencing and plagiarism by using Lego as a mode of authorship.’  There is clearly scope for closer investigation of what Lego can do. A useful starting point is Innovating in the Creative Arts with Lego. This report by Dr Alison James promotes Lego as representation of complex ideas in three dimensional forms. It can be a ‘playful and imaginative alternatives to traditional ways of learning and engaging.

The Prompting Reflection through Play video from Manchester Met’s CELT refers  to using Lego as ‘thinking with your hands.’

During the workshop, Lego is used to create metaphors. This sounds like a form of three dimensional reflection. If external shapes represent internal thoughts then I suspect working with Lego is as much about the process as the end result.

In June I’m attending a Lego workshop at Manchester Met. Play is not my strong point so it may not work for me but underpinning this is wanting to rethink approaches to developing digital capabilities.  I’m looking for ways to stimulate discussion which are non-digital. If going online in the first place is uncomfortable then presenting solutions in digital formats risks creating further barriers. I think we need to go back to basics to establish how low a digital capabilities baseline should be. This requires old fashioned face to face communication. At times like these, where we need to talk, it’s possible an alternative approach like using Lego might work to stimulate conversation. One thing is for sure. I won’t know unless I try.

It isn’t only Lego Serious Play which is attracting interest. The HEA have recently produced a toolkit for Gamification and Games-Based Learning Closer to home the principles of gamification are being realised through the pedagogical potential of Minecraft. Joel Mills and March Lorch at the University of Hull have created Molcraft; an animated world of amino acids and molecules.

Minecraft reminds me of the immersive learning experiences I encountered in Second Life; another alternative form of learning. Virtual 3D reality is now 360 degrees thanks to technologies like Oculus and Google Cardboard. High tech approaches like these make Lego look a little basic but compared to the digital, Lego is more accessible and inclusive. Therein I think lies the power in keeping it simple. Whatever the method, the message is the same. Don’t be afraid to try something new and different.