Exploring how we learn using LEGO bricks with first year undergraduate students

Warning, first draft!

Last week was fascinating. Haleh Moravej opened the door into her classroom and together we co-facilitated workshops with two groups that brought students closer together. Students had the opportunity to share with others what helps them learn using LEGO bricks.

In a way this is a collaborative approach to academic development: on the job, just-in-time applied development that helps boost confidence in new techniques and leads to independence really quickly. Our collaboration had a direct impact on the learning experience of about hundred students and enabled the lecturer to familiarise themselves really quickly with the new approach through practice while also being supported as well as facilitate two of the four workshops on their own. The reflective conversations we had afterwards were of value for both of us and in a way we observed each other in action.

The students were first year undergraduates studying Nutrition21 and were Haleh’s four tutorial groups. This week was their second week at university and everything was still very new to them.

The groups were really diverse and brought richness of experiences to the mix. The workshop was offered to all four tutorial groups in early October 14. In total [to add number] students participated, approximately 20 in each group.

We used LEGO bricks and adapted the LEGO Serious Play method to create a relaxed and playful atmosphere which helped students open up and participate  actively in the session. None of the students had used LEGO(R) Serious Play(R) (short LSP) before but many had experience playing with LEGO bricks. When asked how they felt at the start of the workshop about using LEGO they expressed positive feelings and curiosity. [access the Google Spreadsheet]

In the first workshop we had the bricks hidden in envelopes to add some suspense. As soon as the students saw the LEGO bricks, they started building. Many couldn’t leave their hands of the bricks and some appeared apprehensive…

The warm-up activities helped create a smooth introduction to the method. The transition from reality building to metaphorical building worked for most students. And while some students found it initially hard to make a model and/or share details about their model with others, this soon changed and by the end, I think, students got it! I am wondering if this delay had more to do with the newness of the group than the method itself. Could it be that some students felt less willing at the start to open up as they felt perhaps limited or no group belonging? And did they decide to open up as others did too?

Students’ responses to the main question of the workshop, what helps them learn helped Haleh and myself gain a deeper insight into students conceptions of effective learning strategies. But also the students themselves had the opportunity to find out about each other’s learning habits and preferences. How the information will now be used by Haleh to create a stimulating and inclusive learning environment is crucial.

It was truly fascinating! The models and the stories behind these revealed a lot about what helps these particular students learn. The themes that came up repeatedly across the four groups were. What follows is a draft summary.

– Students expressed the necessity to have variety as they get bored otherwise
– Many students noted that the use of visuals, such as videos, images and flashcards helps them learn
– Students wanted to be actively involved in classes and participate in hands-on activities
– Some students stated that it helps them to listen to the teacher and write things down while one student noted that learning through teaching others was recognised as an effective strategy because when we explain things to somebody else we learn it too
– Students want to learn with others in groups but also recognised the need to study on their own when reading and  carrying out research
-Some students mentioned that they benefit from being connected to their peers via the Internet and use pedagogical approaches that are fit for the digital age

There are some indications of cultural differences and a range of familiarity with newer more student-centred and in other cases more teacher-centred approaches.

I will be further reflecting on the above to explore if we could group some of these findings thematically.
Thank you for inviting me Haleh. I look forward to your reflections, perhaps contrasting with what happened in last year’s sessions with this year’s might also be useful and help you identify differences, if any. Inviting the students themselves to comment on what they felt they got out of the LEGO workshop would help us get their perspective.

Wishing you and your students all the best for this academic year. Let us know how it goes.


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

unzipping minds #flexcpd

The SEDA conference “Creativity in Educational Development” is now over and I still feel the buzz… in my ears, my eyes, my sole and my heart. I have really started feeling part of a supportive Ed Dev community where we can openly share, debate, support each other and grow – together. I had the pleasure to meet new and old friend and engage in fruitful conversations that made me think deeply about my practice but also educational development more widely.

It was wonderful that I could also be there for Prof. Norman Jackson‘s keynote around Creativity in Educational Development. Norman had contacted me a while back and asked me to contribute to his research project. How could I refuse? I really valued the opportunity to share my thoughts, ideas and experiences regarding creativity and I was looking forward to finding out what he had discovered about creativity in Ed Dev more widely. It was truly fascinating to hear. All related resources can be accessed here. Norman said that he discovered among others the following: “The greater the challenge, the greater the motivation to be creative” and perhaps this is why I have become who I am today. Reflecting on my journey through life I have to admit that I experienced a number of extreme difficulties that must have required great strength. I am sure we all have! For example, I had to learn to read and write Greek while attending secondary school and operating at that level academically when I was 12 and we moved with my family to Greece. Until then I was brought up in a German speaking environment and was attending a German school. From the top of the class in Germany, I touched rock bottom when I started the Greek school… I could only speak broken Greek we used at home for the 12 first years of my life… Suddenly another world became my new home and I felt a foreigner in my own country. I remember some classmates laughing about my pronunciation and I felt alone, excluded. I still feel alone today, sometimes, but for other reasons. I am sure we all feel and perhaps this is a good thing as it helps us collect our thoughts and discover who we really are. I wrote about this in my previous post. The challenge I faced when arriving in Greece was enormous. The rejection I felt was massive. Did this make me a more creative person? I don’t know. I guess I was resourceful and developed resilience. I wanted to succeed. Soon I was back on track.

Norman’s research, confirmed to me that ed developers thrive when they enjoy autonomy and can make connections, synthesise and implement creative ideas, when they innovate and are supported by colleagues, leaders, the institution and the wider community. We need to stop doing things that don’t work! Conservatism and resistance are blockers of creative practice and usually comes from people who don’t fully understand Ed Dev, according to Norman. Norman’s resources linked to his keynote are available here. I would highly recommend to access these if you are an Educational Developer. The resources and research findings are also extremely valuable for University Leaders as they provide an insight into the nature of Ed Dev, their people, aspirations and working practices but also the difficulties they are facing. Reading in between the lines we discover how we can truly support Ed Development in our institutions so that they flourish and help individuals, teams and whole institutions to trigger culture change and transform their teaching practices and the student experience. They provide rich food for thought, opportunities to re-think practices and find ways to empower Developers! If we learn to value what unites us instead of focusing on what separates us, we will be able to collaborate and achieve great things. My friend Carol Yeager says: On our own we go fast, with other we go further! This is so true!

in Alison’s LSP workshop

It was wonderful to met Dr Alison James, from the London College of Fashion. I participated in Alison’s LSP workshop and Alison in mine and we started talking about possibilities  to collaborate in the future. I am so pleased that delegates found both LSP workshops useful. Photographs from both workshops can be accessed here.

After some difficulties with the technology!!! my workshop started, thanks to plan B and the help of Andrew (thank you Andrew). During my workshop around developing reflection and engaging in reflective conversations using LEGO(R) I had a eureka moment. My ex-colleague Sian Etherington was brought into the session via Skype. I was holding Sian in my arms (this was pointed out by one of the workshop participants afterwards) via the iPad. A question from one of the delegates made me think and re-think deeply about the approach I used up until then related to the preparation for the Professional Discussion and what the students knew about the LEGO activity in advance. Something that Sian said as a response to a question by a delegate, helped me to identify that there was room for further improvement. I started talking out loud within the session and shared my modified ideas as they were developing. I came to the conclusion that in the future, I would avoid providing details about the LSP activity. If students knew details about the task in advance, they could prepare this and be strategic and less reflective. The model should also emerge during the process of making. So what could I do? I definitely needed to change the approach! Students could be told that there would be a task but not exactly what it would be. When they arrive for the Professional Discussion, a sealed envelope would be given to them which would contain the LSP task. Each task would be different and fully tailored to the specific student based on  tutor’s observations about this particular students from classroom participation and portfolio work. This way, the tutor and the external panel member, but also the student could focus in on specific aspects of the learning journey and provide more insight where needed. I am pleased that the question was asked during the workshop and that the response by the student made me think about how to refine the approach for future use. Always learning something new if we are open to new ideas and willing to challenge and be challenged.

we all build

It was a wonderful surprise also to see Prof. Sally Brown and Prof. Phil Race actively participating in my session.

Alison’s LEGO suitcase. Do you recognise anybody?

During the conference I had the opportunity also to discuss plans to join up CPD initiatives between MMU and Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). I really look forward working with colleagues from MMU and SHU on this initiative. Exciting times ahead. Other project ideas were also discussed with Sue, Kathrine and Ola (who doesn’t know it yet) and Alex. Overall a truly fruitful SEDA conference. Thank you everybody for making it such a rich experience.