Who says students don’t want to learn? #lsp

Haleh Moravej, a senior lecturer in nutrition at MMU and I did a little experiment the other day. We wanted to find out if we could engage a tutorial class of 1st year undergraduate students in a unit evaluation process linked to Nutrition 21 using a pan-participatory, qualitative and playful approach beyond paper or digital surveys or even interviews or focus groups.

Our focus was on identifying what helps Haleh’s students learn and less about how satisfied they are from a consumer point of you. And I guess this is where we divorce ourselves from some of the surveys that are around and used more widely… I am using the term ‘consumer’ here to create a contrast in my thoughts but also to highlight that the focus of our investigation was student learning, students’ conceptions of learning and their thoughts around what they felt helped or hindered their learning in a specific unit. We were also interested in their ideas to make learning happen more effectively and naturally for future cohorts of students on this unit. So students in this context were more taking the role of collaborator and co-designer for their own learning.

Dear Plato said:

“We learn more about a person in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation” – could this be true?

We played for 2 hours! Just imagine how much we learnt about each other!!!

We wanted to gain a deeper insight into the student experience of a whole group on the unit and find out how students  felt the unit could be enhanced for the next cohort. We wanted to do this in a relaxed atmosphere that would foster opening-up! reflection and self-and collective discovery through making and sharing.

We decided to use the LEGO Serious Play (LSP) method. I have used LSP before in different learning and teaching contexts with students and teachers also in conference workshops and have found it a useful method to make individuals and teams feel more relaxed, engage in something that is playful and unusual while also having a pedagogical value that helps individuals deepen their reflection but also seems to increase their critical and creative thinking capacity and connect themselves and their ideas and thoughts with others.

I was really pleased that Haleh embraced this playful approach with passion when I suggested this during a chat we had about her new unit and she shared with me that she was looking for a meaningful way to evaluate the unit with her students. As Haleh and her students were willing to give LSP a go, nothing could stop us!

LSP is thinking with our hands, a series of activity through which we create models, or visual metaphors of our internal world made out of LEGO bricks triggered by a specific question that makes us reflect, think and build meaning through actually building a real model. We could say that LSP is a process to open-up and externalise thoughts, ideas, beliefs and fears and other stuff and share with others creating opportunities for dialogue, further reflection and learning, individual and collective.

It was fascinating what we experienced and I think the students were also surprised with themselves and what they disclosed and shared with their peers about themselves. I could see it in their eyes. I could hear it in their voice. I could see it in their body language. Some might have been skeptic, at least at the start but this is fine. It is healthy to be critical and think about what we are asked to do and what the value of this would be for us. I think it did help explaining why we choose LSP, what we could achieve and how but also said a tiny bit about the underpinning theories behind it. In a way this takes part of the magic away, I suppose, but the real discovery comes when actually experiencing LSP in action. And there were definitely some lightbulb moments for all of us…

Ok, so what happened. Desks and chairs got in the way. We decided to sit on the floor and created a magical circle so to speak. After the LEGO warm-up activity, students were asked to reflect reflect on their learning on the unit and create a model that would capture how learning on the unit looked like for them and mark with a green brick what worked and with a red brick something that didn’t work so well for them. During the second part of the session students were asked to think about how learning would look like on the unit if everything would be ideal. They did this initially individually but then connected their ideas in sub-groups and shared with the whole class.  It was fascinating! All students highlighted very similar things as important factors to make learning happen. Haleh was taking notes throughout and responded at the end of the session which  brought everything together.

making a start (thank you Dr Alison James for the bag idea) , image source: https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7007/13463088623_2bfb319f8d_z.jpg

Students were really focused during the making stages and Haleh was surprised as this group is usually very vocal. Students were concentrating and connecting their thoughts while making their models. I really loved we were all sitting on the floor, around our LEGO campfire and ideas and thoughts emerged, took shape and were shared. Students showed interested in each other’s stories and were asking questions and commented on each others thoughts. Students opened up really quickly. I think it did help that the group knew each other and they felt safe perhaps?

I was impressed with the maturity of students and their commitment to learn and become professionals in their chosen area but also that they acknowledged that they needed support and guidance by their peers and tutors to achieve their goals. Their stories provided rich evidence for all this.

So what came out of the LSP process?

  • Students love variety.
  • Students get bored when they just have to sit there and listen to stuff. They switch off.
  • Students want to understand the usefulness of what they are learning and how it relates to their context and interests.
  • Students want to interact with others.
  • Students want to learn with others.
  • Students understand the value of reading but they want want to do stuff. This seems to be very important to them, the doing part!
  • Students also love to learn through visuals, images, videos etc. we live in a very visual world!
  • Students want to start from the application, experience and practice to develop theory instead the other way around.
  • Students want to be involved in all sessions.
  • Students want also time for themselves. We need to remember this.
  • Students want to know how bits fit together, how they are connected. Just focusing on individual puzzle pieces is not helpful. The bigger picture is important and this needs to be made clear.
  • Students need help to see and make connections as it is not always obvious to them.
  • Students need help understanding why some bits are important, even if ‘boring’ – what is the value of learning these and how do these fit into the bigger picture?
  • Students want the engage in authentic learning.
  • Students want lecturers that have a passion for their subject and inspire them!
  • Students want to learn and they need help and support by their tutors and peers.
  • Students get distracted by their own technology! This was a very interesting confession they made!

Haleh reminded me afterwards that I said:

When we don’t understand something, we get frustrated, some get angry or defensive, others switch off.

I think it is important to remember this when interacting with others, in our everyday life but also in the context of learning and teaching where this is also very relevant. Haleh commented on this: “I think what we did was a revelation and a great experience. You possibly opened up one of my flaws as well for switching off when people don’t get what I mean or what I want. So I think while students were learning I was learning not just about them but about myself too!” (published here with Haleh’s permission)

After students shared their ideas about their ideal experience on this unit and while Haleh was quietly taking notes of the stories students shared – I think she filled loads of papers and was not participating in any of the activities, it was Haleh’s opportunity to share her first thoughts in response to what her own students had said in the last two hours and what her first thoughts and ideas were to tailor learning and teaching on this unit further to help future students. I loved the openness and the transparency of the whole process. Students and the tutor showed enormous respect for each other and were really interested to find solutions that would work for all.

powerful thinking with our hands image source: https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7381/13463125553_51d503834e_z.jpg

All students engaged in the session and found it valuable. They noted that it helped them share inner thoughts and ideas but also found out about how their peers felt about learning on the unit and how they could move forward together. Some suggested that a similar LSP activity would have been useful at the start of the academic year and I can see the value of doing this to speed-up the process of opening up and create learning relationships and community. If anybody would like to try this, please get in touch and we can arrange this.

Learning about myself and others, image source https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3784/13465642385_bfb3e88e7a_z.jpg

The first year students I spent two hours together during the LSP workshop definitely wanted to learn. They were motivated and cared for each other, they felt that they were belonging to a learning community and wanted to succeed in life and become excellent professionals in their chosen field. They recognised the important role of the teacher as a facilitator and supporter of their learning but also as somebody who is inspirational and a role model. The stories they shared definitely confirmed to me that they want to be in a state of being switched on. How can we educators help them?

Could we have got the above from a survey, an interview, a focus group or using another way? I think we could, to some extend. Perhaps we wouldn’t get the richness of responses and we definitely wouldn’t be able to create the atmosphere for opening-up and sharing and creating opportunities for peer bonding and a sense of community which did happen naturally without being forced and created new opportunities for peer-to-peer connections and learning. One of the students said in an email afterwards:

We did some Lego play yesterday and we now know each other much better. I realise that currently the tutors change each year, but we don’t want to start from scratch with somebody else and a new group (as we know each other so well after our Lego therapy) when we already have such a strong bond with Haleh who is so creative and has been supporting us personally and academically. We have all built a really strong relationship both with Haleh and each other, and feel like it would be a shame to lose the dynamic and foundation we have built together.” (used here with student’s permission)


The true power of learning relationships. What are your thoughts on this?

What students said about the LSP approach image source: https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5156/13463089295_08331d9bf1_z.jpg

Learning relationships are important for learning and can be powerful motivators. I think, no survey could have achieved what we achieved in 2 hours together. No interview, no ordinary focus group. The playfulness of LSP and the depth in thinking and reflection that surfaced made it so valuable for all involved and so meaningful and useful. Individuals felt safe, opening-up and made connections with themselves and each other. Students in this group developed a stronger sense of individual and collective identity.

Thank you all for joining in and making this work. I look forward to finding out how the outcomes from the LSP session will be shaping the next iteration of the Nutrition 21 unit.

Thank you for reading.


ps. first draft

The open bug: a story of collaboration and resurrection

Open Education week 2014 has come to an end but open educators are open and share their work openly all year round. The week was a festival of celebrations around the globe with opportunities to share, connect and learn with others and find out what open education is all about but also stop for a while and reflect on the value of being open and sharing experiences, resources, expertise but also ideas that truly grow and evolve when we come together. There was a buzz in the air, I could feel it in the digital jungle but also in the physical one when I visited places and interacted with others.

Is open education giving away stuff and letting others use our ideas freely without any restrictions or even trample on our ideas and forget their origin, their history? Some might see it that way. I don’t.

For me open education is a great opportunity to share our learning with others, to help others and be helped but also to give something back to society. It is a celebration of human discoveries, stories, achievements, creativity and innovations, of any scale, even the tiniest one that might be of value for others. Open education has the potential to lead to personal and collective growth; to new explorations, new adventures. Together we can achieve loads. Loads more than on our own. I read somewhere that ideas live longer when they are shared. It must be true. But, I think, they don’t just live longer, they also grow in different directions. A seed can grow into an exotic plant, that will then multiply following the cycle of life and evolve into something else. Birth, growth, death, renewal. I really think sharing is the fertiliser of ideas! Respectful sharing! Sharing keeps ideas alive. Sharing is also an ideas generator. Sharing is vital for humanity and has led us where we are today. Sharing makes us who we are, creates our paths for the future, our destinies.

Our minds are magic machines, like no other and our imaginations are limitless. In our minds we flirt with possibilities and impossibilities and often we let ourselves get lost in these. But we are not just dreamers, we create new realities too. We make things happen and we make things. We make the impossible, possible. We have done this many times and will do so again, many more times. And we love to share the things we make. We always did. Humans always found fulfilment and happiness in sharing. We still do! Perhaps in the olden days, I call them BC, as in before computers, and especially before social media, sharing was more localised and it was harder to discover fresh ideas that were just born in a little village on the other side of the planet by somebody nobody outside the little village knew. Today, we all have a voice, we are all global broadcasters, sharers and makers if we want to be but also learners and  teachers, and we can all share our thoughts, ideas, creations not just with the people who are near us geographically but more often we share with people we feel are near us a-geographically if there is such a word. Technologies at our fingertips are bringing out the social animal and the maker in us and empower us to share many aspects of our lives with a much wider audience, find alias at the edge of the world that remind us that we are not alone in our thoughts… Especially creative people, I think, who are driven by their curiosity to discover and connect, to play and explore, have become global adventurers and benefited the most from seeking and creating opportunities to reach out and connect, experiment and collaborate with like minded people wherever they are which creates a sense of belonging within vibrant networks and communities. We perhaps feel also less lonely knowing that there are other people out there who push the boundaries,  take risks, use their imagination and creativity to collaborate and innovate. It gives us strength to keep moving and move on. Could this sense of belonging be the true value of opening-up, connecting and sharing with others?

During Open Education Week, our open FDOL course developed by myself and Lars Uhlin was underway, week 5 out of 6, I was invited by Dr David Walker to share some of my open education projects at an HEA event  at Sussex University.

I engaged in other open events during the week and really enjoyed Cathrine Cronin‘s and Sheila MacNeill‘s webinar around the open educator.

I managed also to watch the recording of another interesting and highly useful webinar for my PhD research especially, by Terese Bird and Prof. Grainne Conole.

On top of all that activity, travelling up and down the country and my normal working life (and my personal and family life as well!!!), I came up with the idea to offer another 5-Day course with a twist during the week. Not that I had time for this on top of everything else I was doing already, but I couldn’t stop myself… and I made the time.

I have asked myself many times what happened to OERs and stand-alone courses available under a Creative Commons licence in repositories and other digital locations and was keen to explore how these could potentially be repurposed. My idea was to use a ready-made, off-the shelf course and bring together a team of volunteer facilitators to enable interaction and support learning plus add a few synchronous happenings to the offer. From my work as an academic developer I have seen far too often that educators focus on content. Their prep often means putting a PowerPoint together and lecture notes. What do we forget? The interaction? Our learners? Content is everywhere!!! And I am not a walking encyclopedia to know everything, not even in my own professional area. Things change too rapidly and mountains of new knowledge are created as we speak. Is it actually possible to know everything and is it actually even needed?

During the OER13 Conference I heard Darco Jansen say:

Content is not education, interaction is!

These words were extremely powerful and stayed with me since.

But also it isn’t really about us and what we do but more about what our learners do and how we can facilitate learning and support them but also learn with them. Often we also feel restricted when given somebody else’s materials to use in our classes. We want to make and use our own and I have been thinking about this before as a possible cause for the reduced re-use and re-purposing of OER? But I might make a massive assumption here and this is not good. So please interpret this more as a question that needs to be explored further. Well I wanted to put this to the test and almost proof, if you like, that we seem to focus on the wrong things! Is learning really about the content? We say it isn’t but what are we doing about it? I had already located a suitable course for this experiment which was waiting patiently in my Diigo collection for some time now to be used… when Paul Booth, made an announcement the week before that he would launch his newly created Northwest OER Network during Open Education Week and put a call out for suggestions of network activities to the steering group, I proposed my open course idea or the hijacking if you like of an existing stand-alone course and breath interaction, facilitation and support into it but also enable facilitators to develop and grow. So learning and development opportunities for all! Could this work? The course I proposed was developed by Dr David Wiley and available within p2pu Intro to Openness in Education. Accessing the course, didn’t even require registration which was an added bonus. The themes and resources in this course presented opportunities for flexible engagement also so that anybody who participated could pick ‘n’ mix and engage as much or as little as they would like or was possible at the time. I was pleased that my idea was well received by the steering group and led to the development and implementation during Open Education Week. This was speed course building in action and required concentrated commitment. What a thrill. Previously with Sue Beckingham, we worked for 3 months to develop BYOD4L now we had only a few days. Could we make it work? As Paul embraced it I decided that we could run it together under the Northwest OER Network. I wanted to help Paul raise awareness of his new and important network for the region and also secured support from CELT. In no time, we managed to get 13 volunteer facilitators in total from 3 different continents through our networks and together, we created a facilitated version of the existing course and offered it during Open Education Week. We didn’t have to worry about content and my take on it was that participants would anyway share their own resources, much nicer that providing everything ready on the plate, so to speak.  Anne Hole also shared her collaborative flipboard and invited others to contribute useful resources and links. We used a buddy system for facilitators who worked in pairs during the week, most of them. We had done this before with Sue and it worked really well. We also created a private community for facilitators to come together to support each other and shared a Google doc folder with related information to co-ordinate activities. We focused on creating daily opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous interactions in different social spaces and our main question was how we could bring learners together. There were discussions, open air hangouts, an external webinar led by Prof. Martin Weller (blog post, presentation and recording available here) and tweetchats.

I think, the tweetchats created most of the buzz. We used the tweetchat format developed by Sue Beckingham for our BYOD4L course and it worked really well. The tweetchats brought facilitators and some individuals from the wider community together on 3 days of the week. The exchange was rich and I could see that the chats generated more questions than answers, which I think, us a good thing. I really would love to investigate why tweetchats seem to work so well. What makes them work? The week was intense, a roller coaster, a fantastic and exciting experience. Peter Reed created daily visualisations of our tweet tags based on Martin Hawskey‘s tags explorer and many of us used Stori.fy to bring the tweetchats together. There is no way, any of this would have been possible without Paul Booth, my partner in crime, Carol Yeager, Anne Hole, Helen Webster, Betty Hurley-Dasgupta, Sue Beckingham, Kathrine Jensen, Peter Reed, Lenandlar Singh, Simon Thomson, Alex Spiers, Neil Currie and all who joined us during the week. We are grateful for the commitment and passion they showed to this last-minute project and their engagement and exchange. Thank you all!

My next open experiment leads me to an even more playful adventure and an open curriculum… I won’t be doing this on my own, so much richer when we share the journey with others 😉

If you are new to all this open stuff,  don’t be quick to dismiss it, give it a go! Identify a mini-opportunity to open-up and connect one of your classes with the outside world and help your students connect with people out there to enrich their learning experience further and make it authentic. It will also be fab for you as you will make new connections with educators around the world and feel part of a wider community.

Remember sharing is good for all of us. But do it properly!

Remember not just to take but also to give back and if you build your ideas on somebody else’s, add proper  attribution! Give a little something back today and consider sharing your open creation via JORUM with others and see your ideas growing.

Did you catch the open bug? Share your story with me.

Note: A newer version of this post has been published in the June 2014 edition of the Lifewide Magazine. See http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/ I am adding the references below.

Thank you for stopping by and reading 😉


References (of Lifewide Magazine version of this post)

Conole, G. (2013) Designing for learning in an Open World, London: Springer.
European Commission (2013) High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education. Report to the European Commission on Improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe’s higher education institutions, European Union, available at http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/doc/modernisation_en.pdf [accessed 21 November 2013]
Jackson, N. J. (2013) Learning Ecology Narratives in N Jackson and G B Cooper (Eds) Lifewide Learning, Education and Personal Development E-Book. Chapter C4 available at: http://www.lifewideebook.co.uk/ [accessed 30 March 2014]
Jackson, N. J. (2014a) Lifewide Learning and Education in Universities & Colleges: Concepts and Conceptual Aids, in N.J.Jackson and J. Willis (Eds) Lifewide Learning and Education in Universities and Colleges. Chapter A1, available at:http://www.learninglives.co.uk/e-book.html [accessed 30 March 2014]

Jackson, N. J. (2014b) Towards a lifewide curriculum, in: Willis, J. (ed.) Lifewide Magazine, Issue 9, March 2014, available at http://www.lifewidemagazine.co.uk/ [accessed 30 March 2014]
Nerantzi, C. & Beckingham, S. (2014) BYOD4L – Our Magical Open Box to Enhance Individuals’ Learning Ecologies, in:  Jackson, N. & Willis, J. (eds.) Lifewide Learning and Education in Universities and Colleges E-Book, avaialable at http://www.learninglives.co.uk/e-book.html [accessed 30 March 2014]
Redecker, C. & Punie, Y. (2014) The Future of Learning 2025: Developing a vision for change, in: Future Learning, Volume 2, Number 1, Baltzer Science Publishers, pp. 3-17,available at http://essential.metapress.com/content/q446811434mp6x01/ [accessed 30 March 2014]
Weller, M. (1011) The Digital Scholar. How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic
Wiley, D. & Hilton, J. (2009) Openness, Dynamic Specialization, and the Disaggregated Future of Higher Education, in: International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 10, Number 5, 2009, pp. 1-16., available at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/768 [accessed 30 March 2014]