Using LEGO to teach academic writing skills
Dr Purves explains how ‘playing’ with LEGO® gave his students new perspectives, confidence and skills in tackling their MA dissertations.
3 December 2019
Dr Ross Purves is Associate Professor for Music Education at the IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society.
He planned and delivered a ‘LEGO® Serious Play®’ (LSP) inspired practical workshop on academic skills development to students on the MA Music Education programme.
This case study explores how he ran the workshop in detail.
For those who have less time, or just want a quick read, please read the 200 word summary.
The case study in a nutshell – 200 word summary
The workshop was designed for Master’s students who were already writing their dissertations.
A critical time in their academic careers, this is often the time students lose confidence in their writing or get overwhelmed.
Ross set them a series of challenges where they had to create LEGO® models (sometimes as groups and sometimes as individuals) to express and communicate:
- A piece of academic writing they were given - Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.
- Some data: Primary school principals and the purposes of education in Australia.
- An expression of their own ‘academic superpower’ – what were they good at, academically.
- A depiction of how they felt about their current academic work (i.e. their dissertation).
Then students paired up each others’ superpowers and challenges with their dissertation challenges, to consider what could help them progress with their work.
The students found it a fun and refreshing way to look at academic expression differently. It helped them to understand how to interpret and communicate academic information in a new way and link it to human experiences outside the academic world.
The challenges also helped them review their progress with their dissertations, see the big picture and identify solutions to help them overcome problems they had with their writing.
“It was challenging working in a group with language barriers but it was lovely when these inhibitions began to lower at the end!” (participating student)
“I find it a bit difficult to use LEGO® to represent the ideas in my mind. But the process of ‘thinking’ is quite interesting. It really pushes us to be open minded” (participating student)
The full case study
Ross explains in detail how he ran the workshop.
What the workshop aimed to achieve
“The session was not designed to teach students to develop ‘nuts and bolts’ aspects of academic writing, like referencing, sentence construction etc, but to develop more broadly students’ skills as academic writers, such as:
- finding their academic ‘voices’
- completing tasks which helped them to explore a wider range of responses to academic material
- understanding the need to contextualise literal and statistical research findings in the world of human experience
- providing new ways of perceiving, explaining and linking concepts in their ongoing dissertation work.
Student feedback from the workshop suggested that the various activities often triggered reflection about their own work. Jump to the student feedback section of this page.
It is quite common for students to start to lose confidence in their writing at later stages in producing their MA dissertation, and feel as though they can no longer ‘see the big picture’. The activities were intended to remind them that they might be able to regain this sense of perspective by exploring their work from different angles and in different ways.
“I was fortunate to observe this innovative taught session for MA students with its cutting-edge pedagogy: The hands-on, practical approach that students were encouraged to take was highly enjoyable for everyone involved. It also ensured that students engaged in deep reflection on published theories relevant to their subject discipline. The activities also pushed the teaching and learning beyond traditional approaches to Higher Education lecturing wherein learners are passive, and on into the realm of active learning, critical reflection and student ownership of the knowledge generated.”
David Baker, Associate Professor, Academic Head of Learning and Teaching, Department of Culture, Communication and Media, IOE.
An open source team working philosophy
I planned and delivered a two-hour LEGO® Serious Play®-inspired practical workshop, entitled ‘Playful Learning, Serious LEGO® and Academic Writing’ during the annual MA Music Education programme study day.
The practical activities were derived from related activities undertaken at other UK universities and were based on a large quantity of mixed, miscellaneous LEGO® that I was able to borrow from family members.
I planned four kinds of activities:
- group challenges
- solo tasks
- longer, synoptic group activities.
Originally a proprietary methodology owned by The LEGO® Group, LEGO® Serious Play® (LSP) became open source in 2010.
It is a team working philosophy built around the concepts of challenge, building, storytelling and reflection.
While associated with, and widely used for, the development of executive and strategic thinking to facilitate change, LEGO® Serious Play® is increasingly being used in higher education to explore complex issues and questions and engage learners and academic staff in more hands-on approaches to learning and development… Its techniques are being widely used and adapted in diverse contexts; its effects and outcomes are also being considered through a range of lenses, including the critically reflective and the research-based.
James and Nerantzi, 2018: A potpourri of innovative applications of LEGO® in learning, teaching and development
Although not a certified LSP facilitator, as an enthusiastic ‘adult fan of LEGO®’ and someone who has benefited from some basic LSP training, I was keen to try out this approach with students.
Whilst it is important to note that not all aspects of the workshop described are strictly consistent with orthodox LSP philosophy, all were inspired by its basic principles.
A piece of action research
The session was planned as a piece of action research, the fruits of which would include this article. Therefore, full ethical clearance was gained from the IOE's Research Ethics Committee in advance.
I made it very clear that it was not compulsory to give consent to participate in the research aspect. However, all those present did provide their consent, suggesting that these postgraduate students – all at critical moments in their own dissertation fieldwork – recognised the importance of gathering and sharing research evidence on educational innovation.
What is action research?
Action research is a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions. (Institute for the Study of Inquiry in Education)
The importance of room set-up and props
The room was set up around two, large island tables. Each island hosted two groups of four students.
Tables were covered with tablecloths, sourced cheaply from charity shops. This was a fantastically useful tip from Jensen et al (2018) which significantly reduces the noise levels created as a room full of people shuffle LEGO® around.
The friction from the cloth also lessens the amount of bricks which get inadvertently knocked off.
Large cardboard trays (Lidl’s 48-can baked beans trays) were used to hold the LEGO® randomly allocated to each group. Looked after carefully and reinforced with tape, these trays will fold flat, ready for the next session.
My impression from planning and delivering this workshop is that the diversity of LEGO® is probably more important than sheer quantity (although this clearly depends on the size of group).
Particularly useful are pieces which support rich metaphors, e.g. trees, flowers, animals, doors, windows and components from LEGO® ‘city’ kits. Including DUPLO® animals and other parts can also lead to interesting size contrasts with standard LEGO® components. Of course, a good stock of standard ‘building-block’ bricks is the bedrock of most models and some components from LEGO® Technic sets can also be useful for more elaborate structures.
It was clear from this workshop that students appreciated a wide range of brick colours and attributed metaphorical significance to these colours within their models.
A discussion arose during the session regarding the ‘monocultural’ nature of the available minifigures. Since the LEGO® was second hand, much was too old to feature recent ethnically and ability diverse figure designs. This is certainly something I will consider carefully in future workshops.
Introductions and ground rules: setting the scene
I provided a ‘take away’ handout with references to LSP theory and to the various sources which had inspired the various activities to save time.
Given that many participants were serving or intending teachers, I also stressed the metacognitive aspects of the session, asking reflective questions about why the room had been set up as it was and how I had sequenced the activities.
I next went through a slide of ‘ground rules’ for the session, drawing both on general LSP theory and practical tips from others in the field.
I made it clear that prior experience with LEGO® was not an advantage, since the session was not focused on engineering, design or architectural prowess. Moreover, it was perfectly OK to ‘break’ normal conventions of LEGO® building (e.g. mixing colours, building at odd angles, combining standard and DUPLO® blocks etc) if desired.
I gave the students ‘permission’ to feel like children, to play and have fun, explaining that there would be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ models. Our personal instincts, experiences and interpretations were what counted.
However, in line with LSP theory, the following rules applied:
- When discussing people’s models, students were instructed to focus on the maker’s own interpretation and not ‘interpret’ for them.
- The models were to function as vehicles for discussion, a means of talking about issues; the session was about LEGO® building, not counselling.
- Students would not be under pressure to share their models with the class if they didn’t want to.
Also, as the LEGO® didn’t belong to me – it wasn’t to leave the room!
Warm up activities
The warm up activities were not focused on academic writing skills per se but were instead intended to be simple and fun ways to engage both with LEGO® modelling and basic LSP concepts.
Warm-up one: make a snail
I asked students to model a ‘snail’ in three minutes. They could make their snail however they wished and were not to worry about anyone else’s model.
This is an excellent warm-up task from Chrissi Nerantzi at Manchester Metropolitan University. It encourages rapid creative thinking since snails are inherently ‘curvy’ creatures but LEGO® is inherently ‘blocky’.
Imagination is required to build the former from the latter and students can come to see LEGO® blocks in new ways.
At the end, we shared many of the snail designs and discussed them as a class.
Warm-up two: tallest and sturdiest tower challenge
Inspired by Peabody and Turesky’s (2018) contribution to the IJMAR Special Issue on LSP in Higher Education, the goal of this task was for each group to collaborate in silence to produce the tallest and the sturdiest tower in three minutes.
This warm-up had multiple intentions, including incubating teamwork skills and thinking about the structural (as opposed to aesthetic) qualities of the various bricks available.
These group challenges were intended to help students explore academic material and how they could interpret, express and contextualise them.
Group challenge one: interpret the reading…
This task, adapted from the original by Dan Swanton at the University of Edinburgh, marked the first real focus on academic literacy skills within the session.
I provided each group with a simple, half-page text definition of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, taken from an education encyclopaedia.
The students read through the short text, highlighting or annotating as they wished before discussing ideas for how this text might be interpreted using LEGO®.
Talking was obviously permitted this time, although I encouraged them to focus on building, not discussion.
Several of the resulting models adopted a basic tower design, perhaps reflecting the pyramidal structure typically used to illustrate Maslow’s theory.
Students described the model above as ‘a staircase representing Maslow’s hierarchy. At the bottom, physiological needs, with foliage and animals representing food. At the top – self actualisation (with eyes and lights suggesting vision and illumination). The tree of enlightenment!’
Others took a more metaphorical approach. The model above depicted Maslow’s theory as Noah’s Ark, with safety and learning possible from the security of inside the boat. Flowers and flags were used to suggest flourishing.
In both these models, as throughout the session, animals were used for symbolic purposes.
Here, physical dangers were represented by a tiger and a crocodile. The tower depiction on the left featured a black seal. A play on words, this was intended to suggest a need for the ‘seal of approval’ of others.
Group challenge two: interpret the data…
Taking forward the idea of interpretation, the next activity was a version of a task proposed by Laura Ennis of Edinburgh Napier University.
I gave each group a simplified and adapted table of results from a journal article: Primary school principals and the purposes of education in Australia. This reported a sample of head teachers’ responses to the question ‘what are the top four purposes of education?’.
Again, students read and annotated this extract before discussing and modelling its interpretation in LEGO®.
It was interesting that two thirds of the groups opted for a combined graphical and symbolic representation of the data.
For instance, above, an incomplete model is shown in which four ‘platforms’ have been constructed, each at a height corresponding to the top four aims of education in the survey. The astronaut on the top platform reflects the number one aim on the survey: ‘promoting students’ love of learning and developing responsible citizens for democracy and common good’.
Above, a more traditional ‘bar graph’ has been constructed, using a scale-accurate representation based on LEGO® studs.
As the facilitator, it was clear to me that the two interpretation activities represented a ‘stepping up’ in terms of challenge.
Whilst the warm-ups had been regarded by students as light-hearted, creative fun, the need to convey meaning and summarise information now led to longer periods of more focused building.
In line with LSP philosophy, the students were clearly very concerned to develop meaningful metaphors for these sources.
On the other hand, it is important to note potential tensions with other aspects of LSP, including an emphasis on open-ended, ‘low entry, high ceiling’ activities (James, 2015: Innovating in the creative arts with LEGO) that are not predicated on such ‘fixed’ stimuli.
Longer solo and group activities focussing on their writing and academic skills
With students now becoming more aware of the potential of LSP, we moved on to a series of linked, longer tasks which focused on their own writing and academic skills.
This set of activities owes much to others’ existing tasks intended to:
- elicit participants’ personal strengths (as referenced in Mouratoglou, N. (2018), LEGO®, Learning, and Facilitation: A Reflective Approach)
- represent academic progress (as referenced in a blog post by Naomi Winstone: Reflections on using Lego Serious Play as a tool in writing development: Overcoming writer’s block using Lego blocks)
- make powerful links between models, and the ideas they represent ( as referenced in Peabody and Turesky (2018), Building LEGO® Models To Teach Three Dimensional, Mechanical Concepts In Optometry)
- generate metaphorical ‘gifts’ for one another (as referenced in LEGO® Serious Play®: a Research Student Perspective, Writing Pad East Midlands)
Exploring their learning superpower
Using a small base board, I asked each student to construct a model which represented their ‘learning superpower’. Importantly, they were not to disclose this superpower to their colleagues.
Above, one student has modelled their ability to identify and sort relevant information for their studies as their superpower.
This student has depicted themselves as a giraffe, able to see over the various obstacles they face in their work.
In a third model (not shown), prominent red 'flames' were intended to convey that this student’s superpower was 'passion'.
This activity increased the sense of challenge still further, not least because participants now found themselves relying on their own thinking and building skills.
The level of background noise reduced noticeably, with a few participants appearing lost in thought, temporarily ‘stumped’ by the task. As one later reflected on their feedback form, it was ‘difficult to think about my superpower’.
A model depicting the challenges of their dissertation
I then asked the students to put this model to one side, take a second small base board and construct an individual model which depicted their current state of progress or challenge on an important academic task, such as their MA dissertation.
Examples of models included:
1. An overly-complex machine which represented ‘having too many ideas and having to filter into a functioning, working dissertation’.
2. The student depicted herself as having a circular saw blade spinning above her head as means of showing the pressure she felt from family to do well.
3. This student described her model as “the lion and the Grinch [the green block with eyes] represent challenges. I am at the bottom of the ladder, collapsed on the floor. The top of the ladder is my dissertation”.
Matching superpowers and challenges
Groups then took turns to guess each other’s superpowers from the models.
Whilst this guessing task was modelled on a very similar activity described in the IJMAR special edition by Mouratoglou (2018), it is fair to note a potential contradiction here with the basic LSP principle of ownership of a model’s metaphor lying solely with the builder. Yet despite this tension, on this occasion, the task generated useful debate.
Once correctly revealed, I asked the students to think about which group members’ superpowers might help them with their challenge.
Subsequently, the various models were linked in ways to reflect how the superpowers might help.
This linking activity was arguably the most successful of the whole session in stimulating discussion and thinking.
In the example shown, the superpower of being able to undertake daring (metaphorical) motorbike jumps out of difficult situations (left) has been combined with a model where the student wished to suggest the challenge of perceived disorder and a lack of direction (right). The latter student subsequently noted: “I was in the pit of despair, overwhelmed with work. X’s model provided the necessary skills and support to get out”.
Given the way that students engaged so effectively, I would be sure to devote more time to making meaningful connections between models in future workshops.
One group found establishing suitable connections particularly difficult, noting that some ‘superpowers’ brought inherent, kryptonite-like weaknesses, whereas some ‘challenges’ offered powerful learning and development opportunities. It would have been good to have had flexibility to explore such thought-provoking conundrums in more depth.
Develop their ‘journey’ through the MA programme
The final, synoptic activity was adapted from one described by Professor Alison James, a key proponent of LSP in UK Higher Education.
Students arranged all the pairs of models created by those on the table to represent a single ‘journey’ through the MA programme thus far. To do this, I asked them to consider making small changes to their own models.
I also asked them to think further about linking models and to add additional model elements illustrating their MA journey.
Most significantly, I asked each group to add a section which reflected how it would feel to finish the MA successfully.
Several students noted that the activities had provided valuable opportunities to reflect on their own academic work in new ways.
Given the objectives of the session, this was of course gratifying to hear. Feedback included:
- "I like the … “progress of the dissertation” activities. Makes me think reflectively about my study"
- "[I was struck by] how much personal reflection I was able to do whilst building"
- "Applying this creativity/ingenuity into my work"
- "Organising and think about my work good/bad abilities"
- "The LEGO® can connect with the ideas, the thoughts and build relationships with what I’m doing"
Further feedback is collated below.
Gathering feedback from the session
In order to obtain written feedback from participants, I drew on a series of simple evaluation questions proposed by certified LSP facilitator Rémy Gaudy on the seriousplay.training web discussion forum (20 September 2016).
These were as follows:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What could be done differently?
- What struck you most during the workshop?
- What were you most interested in?
- Other suggestions.
Students completed these sheets in the last five minutes of the session.
I also encouraged them to briefly jot down intentions, thoughts and feelings about their models on supplied sticky notes. These were then stuck to the associated models as an aide-mémoire for the associated metaphors and interpretations.
Feedback from the workshop suggested that the biggest impacts on students’ learning appeared to be in the areas of:
- the use of metaphor and representation;
- stimulating collaboration and discussion;
- reflection on their own academic work; and
- creativity and enjoyment.
It was encouraging to hear students use the word ‘metaphor’ as they discussed the various building activities in groups. I was also struck by how often students talked very frankly about their models and the associated meanings. Many models also demonstrated wit and humour.
Some individuals who appeared initially more reticent to participate became enthusiastic and creative contributors by the end, coming up with some really fantastic models in the process.
Feedback comments in this area included:
- "The creative process of building the thoughts into an object"
- "Use symbols and models to represent ideas and concepts. LEGO®’s use in education and academic learning! Cool!"
- "I find it a bit difficult to use LEGO® to represent the ideas in my mind. But the process of ‘thinking’ is quite interesting. It really pushes us to be open minded"
- "How the thinking turned into different symbols. Some people use symbols (e.g. colour), others used real objects"
- "Linking the ideas together"
- "Playing with LEGO® and using models to link to real life"
- "interpreting data/ideas differently"
2. A stimulus for collaboration and discussion
There was no doubt, both from comments made during the session and the feedback, that students valued the opportunities that LSP presented for collaboration and discussion.
They were typically fascinated by each other’s models and the associated meanings and wanted more time to explore these. Comments included:
- "The sign which LEGO® represents [is] sometimes abstract. Intensive communication is required"
- "When sharing individuals’ LEGO® I could hear something interesting"
- "It was fascinating hearing what other groups came up with"
- "We should [have more] opportunities to express our own idea to each other"
3. Reflection upon students’ own work
Further comments suggested that some students would have welcomed even more opportunities to link the activities with their own studies:
- "We could use LEGO® to express our study journey. We could let classmates guess others’ opinions"
- "May be could be used to talk about our ideas from the course"
4. Creativity and enjoyment
Feedback confirmed that opportunities to be creative were a highlight for many students.
During the morning before the workshop, several students mentioned that they were ‘looking forward to the LEGO®’.
Subsequently, it was gratifying to see the general willingness to take part. Comments on the feedback sheet reflected these points:
- "It is quite impressive to teach, very interesting, stimulate our imagination"
- "Playful and enjoyable, creativity within academia"
- "How quickly we could adapt to the different scenarios"
- "How strengths and weaknesses are used to help each other. Building on each other"
- "Having to think creatively to meet the brief and the challenge of using whatever was available"
- "It was a great experience, both relaxing and creative"
- "All tasks really fun and engaging. Definition of ‘serious fun'"
Developing the workshop in the future
I am hopeful of opportunities to undertake further LSP-based sessions within our MA programme.
Based on this initial experience, I plan to consider the following:
- Focusing on a reduced number of activities per session to enable greater opportunities for discussion, reflection and sharing.
- A greater role for activities which encourage students to discuss their own academic journeys, progress and challenges.
- Planning more time for whole group discussion and sharing at the end of each task.
- Obtaining a wider selection of culturally diverse LEGO®.
- Reflecting the focus of our MA programme, developing activities which embrace meaningful musical learning alongside academic development.
Ross’s top five observations for implementing this in your department
- Sessions like this can be quite physically demanding for the facilitator. It took around 40 minutes to set up the room. Facilitators need to be very active, moving around to encourage and support students. Like any learning activity, students can get ‘stuck’ or lack self-confidence and practical help might be required when students cannot find the particular LEGO® components they seek.
- The timing of activities is key. As noted, students appreciate sufficient time to reflect upon the activities and share their models. Many feedback comments suggested this initial session did not always provide this. The specific subset of activities should always reflect student profiles and needs. However, at least one warm-up task is recommended. The use of an on-screen countdown timer helped to keep the workshop on track during the initial activities. However, as students experienced greater challenge in the solo and group tasks this timer seemed to agitate them. There was a feeling of me driving things forward when some tasks might have benefited from gaining their own sense of momentum. Thus, in future, I will plan for flexible, open-ended tasks and make dynamic decisions about how much time is needed.
- Consider ground rules to reflect student profiles. As mentioned elsewhere, models in this session often incorporated humour and creative thinking. At one point, I was surprised by the ‘adult content’ included in one group’s representation of Maslow’s ‘physical needs’… Whilst this witty contribution was appreciated by the postgraduate students present, I can envisage potential situations where offence might be taken. Ground rules might need to be framed so as to reduce the risk of humorous interpretations going too far.
- Organising the workshop space is important. Ideal group sizes of four - six participants are recommended by Jensen et al (LEGO® Serious Play® In Multidisciplinary Student Teams): “With too many participants in each group the storytelling step will take up a disproportional amount of your class time – and listening to too many stories will challenge participants’ patience, potentially leading them to disengage from the process”. I followed this advice in my workshop and felt these sizes worked well.
- Students get very attached to their models. This is perhaps not surprising, given the emotional and metaphorical significance that some invest in them. However, it can make breaking up the models - either during the workshop to free up pieces for further creations or at the end in order to clear up - a little awkward. Whilst I encouraged students to repurpose the bricks from the warm-ups, I aimed to avoid a need to break up individual models. I also encouraged students to take photographs on their phones to provide personal records. At the end of the session, models were left in situ, only to be discreetly broken up after the last student had left.
Helpful introductory resources
I recommended the following resources on my workshop ‘take away’ sheet. They could usefully be shared in advance of sessions with students and staff to give information and reassurance about LSP-inspired activities.
- A video on ‘LEGO® Serious Play® for higher education’ (YouTube) produced by the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University.
- Special Issue of the International Journal of Management and Applied Research (Vol 5(4); 2018) on ‘Discovering Innovative Applications of LEGO®® in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education’.
- The Open Source LEGO® Serious Play® Manual (2010).
- Information on LEGO® Serious Play® from the official LEGO® website.
Further useful sources include:
- James, A. & Nerantzi, C. (2019) LEGO® for University Learning: Inspiring Academic Practice in Higher Education.
- Brown, N. & Collins, J. (2018) Using LEGO® To Understand Emotion Work In Doctoral Education. International Journal of Management and Applied Research, 5 (4): 193-209.
Two recent blog entries from Writing Pad East Midlands:
- Playful Learning Conference 2019: down the rabbit hole.
- #Mindbuilder Lego© Serious Play© Competition for Research Students.
Thanks and acknowledgements
I am indebted to Helen Purves, who provided the majority of the LEGO® used for the session, and for the assistance provided by Arthur and Mel Purves.
I am grateful to Dr Evangelos Himonides for his help cutting up large, LEGO®-compatible base boards and with photography.
Thanks also to Dr David Baker for photography and for the opportunity to deliver the session as part of the MA May Study day.
Finally, sincere thanks to Julia Reeve of De Montfort University for reviewing an earlier draft of this article."
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