Learning with Lego

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Lego bricks are a constant presence in my life. I’ve nurtured a love for Lego bricks in my kids and I live with the consequences! Lego bricks and creations litter my home; Christmases and Birthdays involve hours of constructing models; rainy weekends hours are spent building. And in the last year I’ve also started using Lego in some of my teaching…

My teaching with Lego started with a panicked email to the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). I’d recently taken on the role of senior tutor for the Geography undergraduate students and I’d decided to rethink how we run the personal tutor group meetings. Student attendance at group meetings had been patchy and many colleagues became frustrated at the lack of student engagement. In an attempt to revive enthusiasm for these meetings I decided to take the lead with Year 1 and 2 group meetings. And so a few weeks into a busy semester I found I’d committed myself to running sessions on referencing for First Year students. I wanted to avoid some dry – or worse, droning – introduction to the Harvard System. I also hoped the sessions would set the tone for future group meetings: engaging, fun, informative, effective. I hoped that the students would start to see the value in these groups meetings and want to turn up. But I was struggling for inspiration. Luckily I was put in contact with Chris Doye – a study development officer with the IAD. While I was chatting to Chris, she mentioned that she’d seen Carina Buckley give a talk about how she’d developed a method of teaching students about the importance of referencing and how to avoid plagiarism using Lego.

Referencing with Lego

My twist on the referencing with Lego exercise involved handing over boxes (that were all uniquely labelled) of Lego to pairs of students and encouraging them to build some kind of creation. They could build anything they wanted. The only rules were that they had to use bits of Lego from their box of Lego and from at least 4 other boxes. After a few minutes of building, I asked the students to introduce their Lego creations to the rest of the group. After these introductions, I started to ask particular groups where specific bits of Lego came from. ‘This yellow brick here…Can you tell me which box it came from?’ ‘No? Then I’m afraid I’m going to have to take it from you.’ After I’d destroyed a couple of creations, the students started to avoid eye contact.  They were keen that I didn’t start pulling apart their Lego models! But they also began to understand the need to be able to identify and attribute sources. The exercise worked as an effective metaphor for the importance of academic referencing. It helped the students understand why they were being asked to reference, the role of in-text referencing, and led into a discussion of plagiarism, the collaborative nature of academic writing, and good academic practice when note-taking and writing essays.

I ran these sessions twice and was impressed with how introducing Lego worked. To start I was a little apprehensive. Would it make sense to the students? Would the students feel patronised? But introducing Lego transformed the teaching space. An anonymous – even uninspiring – teaching space had a distinct buzz. The playfulness of Lego – and perhaps its associations for many with childhood – produced a relaxed atmosphere. It was also striking that my colleagues who attended these events were often the most enthusiastic participants! Lego diffused the awkwardness that often accompanies these kinds of activities, particularly for students who are still settling into university life. The students didn’t hesitate. They launched into building, talking and collaborating.

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Reading summaries with Lego

Buoyed by the success of the Lego referencing – and because I had a large box of Lego in my office – I decided to introduce Lego in another course I teach on cities. The class had 55 students – mainly 3rd and 4th year undergraduates – but also some postgraduate students. The lectures for this course last 2 hours and each week I use different small group activities to encourage student discussion and reflection.  For the lecture on ‘City of Walls’ I arrived with the Lego bricks, alongside a selection of mini-figures that I’d plundered from my kids’ Lego boxes at home.

Building, thinking, discussing

In previous years I’d given the students poster paper and 3 questions to aid small group discussion of the required reading in this lecture. These questions acted as prompts to help the students focus on what I saw as the key ideas articulated in the readings. But with the Lego I offered no prompts. I simply asked for a Lego model that provided some kind of summary of the reading, and informed the students that they should be prepared to share and discuss their creations.

Once again, the introduction of Lego transformed the atmosphere in the class. The transition from ‘lecture’ to ‘group work’ in this class typically produced a couple of minutes of quiet. There was often an awkwardness as students started to shuffle chairs and tables, arrange themselves into groups, and flicked through printed copies of readings or scrolled through computer screens looking for the right bit of underlined text. It usually look 2 or 3 minutes for conversations to really get going. But with Lego there was an immediate crash of bricks onto desks, and animated chatter. There was a palpable sense of excitement as the students started building, thinking and discussing. The element of play appeals to childhood memories, and an invitation to think and make transformed how the students were interacting. Over the next 10 minutes or so it was clear that students were thinking with the bricks. They were making connections, experimenting and trying things out, sharing ideas and collaborating.

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Story-making and story-telling

Perhaps the most important effect of bringing the Lego into the class room was how it introduced story-making and story-telling. For each of the small groups, playing with Lego and working together to construct an artefact involved sharing ideas, reflecting, and building a story through a shared understanding of the ideas, examples and processes introduced in the readings. The second part of the Lego exercise involved bringing the class back together to summarise discussions and share refections. It was really striking how eager the students were to share their Lego creations and tell the stories behind their model. They were animated and enthusiastic as they talked their classmates through the models and told the story of what their creation represented and symbolised.

What impressed me most was the depth of understanding that the students were able to demonstrate and articulate through their story-telling. The first 3 groups each told very different stories, but each group had identified one of the key ideas that I’d asked students to focus on in previous years using questions. Without prompts – and without returning to the original texts during their discussions – the students demonstrated that they had understood and digested the key ideas from that week’s readings.  What’s more they’d shown that they could work with and apply these ideas.

Feedback postcards distributed during the same lecture help me gauge how much the students enjoyed playing with Lego in class. The playful element of learning with Lego is important, and its role in transforming a teaching space and creating a different atmosphere shouldn’t be underestimated. But reflecting back, I’ve also come to appreciate how introducing Lego allowed me to emphasise the role of experience, interaction and reflection for effective learning. The experiences of building together, discussing, and making and telling stories, meant that Lego bricks offered a powerful artefact through which the student were able to develop, negotiate, express and share their understanding.

This year I’ll be using the Lego again. I’m a little wary of introducing the Lego bricks too often but I’ve tried them out in group supervisions with students starting out on their undergraduate dissertations. The bricks became a vehicle for expressing, discussing and refining research ideas. I’m also planning an activity for 4th year students using Lego to encourage students to reflect on their personal learning journeys towards the end of their degree. It’d be great to hear from anyone who is using Lego or similar things in their teaching or if anyone is inspired to try it out based on this blog.

References and resources

Buckley, C. (2015). ‘Conceptualising plagiarism: using Lego to construct student’s understanding of authorship and Citation’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20:3, 352-358.

Gauntlett, D. (2011) Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge: Polity Press.

James, A. (2013). ‘Serious Play: a three-dimensional approach to learning development’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 6.

McCusker, S. (2014). ‘Lego Serious Play: Thinking about Teaching and Learning’, International Journal of Knowledge, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, 20:1, 27-37.

Dan’s post was first published on the IAD4LearnTeach blog in October 2016. This learning and teaching-focused blog, run by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh, offers reflective and in-depth commentary on learning and teaching in higher education.

Dan Swanton

Dan Swanton is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and the Senior Tutor for the Geography undergraduate students. Dan is a cultural geographer and his research focuses on urban multiculture, the geographies of race and racism, industrial ruins, and everyday life in cities.  Dan teaches across the Geography programme, including lecturing on an introductory Human Geography course for Year 1 undergraduate students, and organising an honours option ‘Encountering Cities’ and a field class to Berlin. As senior tutor he has been developing a programme of activities to enhance study skills among Geography students.

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