LEGO Serious Play starter kit for research & teaching

LEGO Serious Play was an essential aspect of my research method, getting participants to ‘build’ their answer, not just talk it through. I’ve also used it as a teaching facilitation tool to support critical and divergent thinking. LEGO is one of my most favourite research and teaching methods, as you can let people work through answers with the use of LEGO, and then capture the salient points when they share their build. It not only saves a lot of data processing for the researcher, but it is a lot more fun for participants. For teaching, it supports different forms of thinking and really gets ALL students involved. While LEGO Serious Play is a distinct facilitation approach and you can get trained to use it, there are also some helpful books to get you started. I recommend Blair and Rillo’s SERIOUSWORK as a good place to start.

To use LEGO for any aspect of research or teaching, you first need to buy some! This blog highlights the choices I made to build my budget LEGO Serious Play kit.

LEGO Serious Play sets are awesome! But expensive. There is a range of sets available on the official LEGO shop, but they were beyond my budget as a self-funded doctoral student. I had to improvise. This article will introduce the sets I purchased and how I think they worked for research and teaching use.

My haul

The LEGO sets I purchased for my LEGO Serious Play kit

LEGO classic

LEGO Classic sets are a brilliant way to bulk out your LEGO Serious Play kit. You get a lot of brick for your money, and the variety of colours is fantastic. I’m so jealous of children today – LEGO had about five colours when I was a child. I already had a Large Creative Brick Box (10698) – so bought a couple more to serve as the baseline of my LEGO Serious Play kit. The plastic storage boxes they come in are also the perfect place to keep the LEGO stored away between uses. In addition to these larger sets, I also bought a couple more classic sets, one featuring lots of windows and doors (11004) – the other featuring lots of wheels (11014).

The available sets vary over time, but I have found they usually have a classic set on offer with extra wheels and another with windows and doors. These are useful additions to any LEGO Serious Play kit so I’d advise investing in such sets. Windows and doors are not only useful in a literal sense, but they work well for metaphors. Wheels work well for movement, vehicles and more. I’ve also seen a set with extra roof tiles which I think could be useful. It’ll certainly be part of my next LEGO purchase.

Interesting bricks

Next up I wanted to add a set with some different/interesting bricks. To be honest, any set would do for this – but I wanted to avoid anything licenced. I felt items like a Star Wars brick or a Spiderman Minifigure would not serve as universal references, so wanted to avoid them. I think Minecraft LEGO sets are particularly useful as they have lots of transparent tiles and colourful bricks. At the time I purchased my kit, LEGO was celebrating its 60 year anniversary and had launched some special Building Bigger Thinking sets. I purchased World Fun (10403), which contained some useful pieces like a treasure chest, eyes, columns, helicopter and a couple of Minifigures. I also chose Ocean’s Bottom (10404) which has more eyes, wings, wheels and transparent bricks.

All these LEGO classic sets built the bulk of my LEGO Serious Play kit. This gave me lots of standard bricks, including windows, doors, wheels and more. The next pieces I used to build my collection were all a matter of choice. For example, baseplates can be useful for a lot of LEGO Serious Play kits – but they were not something I needed for my particular research. As such, I decided to forego them. If you need to facilitate collaborative builds then baseplates are the perfect way to bring this together.

Pick a Brick

To top off my LEGO Serious Play kit, I wanted to choose a few additional bricks. To help with this, I used the Pick a Brick station at a LEGO store. I focused on extra eyes, small tile pieces and anything else small. This would allow participants to build intricate/small/detailed models – should they wish.

Minifigures

Minifigures can be a bit of a divisive topic when considering their use in LEGO Serious Play. They can lead participants to focus on people (which may not be a bad thing) when they’re building their answers. For my research, I felt participants would benefit from Minifigures. Libraries are inherently social spaces – and people are part of that. I didn’t want participants wasting time in my research sessions ‘building people’ – so Minifigures it was!

Again, I felt the best place to get these was through a LEGO shop. There are build-a-Minifigure stations in LEGO shops allowing you to build three custom figures per pack. Four packs (12 figures) covered my needs.

Preparing the LEGO

The worst thing you can do is walk into your first LEGO Serious Play research or teaching session with a load of new boxes of LEGO. It’s worth spending some time unboxing and unbagging it to ensure it is ready to use. I also spent time assembling a few elements to make them ready for use. For example, adding tyres to wheels, putting wheels on axels, putting panes in windows and adding doors to their frames. While participants are free to switch things around, it does mean the bricks are ready for use without needing to combine these pieces.

From the unboxing photo below, you can see there was a lot of plastic bags to ditch. I also wanted to find a way to layout the LEGO without getting it everywhere – so I used the cardboard box lids from printer paper boxes. It worked really well to stop LEGO falling all over the floor during my research sessions.

Ready to go!

With all the LEGO purchased, unpacked and ready to go, I was able to start using it for teaching and research purposes. I still keep the LEGO stored in the big yellow boxes that came with the larger sets. I also bring a load of those empty box lids to pour LEGO out and stop it from getting everywhere.

LEGO works as a wonderful research and educational tool. I took this snap from one of the first sessions I facilitated three years ago. I can’t wait to share some more of my reflections on this.

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The development of university teachers vs. the learning developer

Today I had the pleasure of starting my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PCAP). As a learning developer, my journey is atypical to the peers on my course. This article serves as my first reflection about this. Our first reading was Kugel’s (2006) How professors develop as teachers. Kugel discusses a typical development pathway for lecturers — moving from an understanding of how to teach students towards an understanding of how to support their learning. In this, there are six stages, each characterised by the changing focus as lecturers develop their practice:

The transition from teaching to learning

This model was interesting. Kugel discussed how new teachers tend to focus on themselves as they begin to teach. They move towards solidifying their own discipline knowledge before starting to take into account students. These initial changes focus on teaching. The understanding of students develops, acknowledging them as receptive, then active learners. These later stages begin to focus on learning above teaching. Finally there is an understanding of learners as independent — with the core role of the teaching being to support students to teach themselves.

While I can see much in this model, it’s an interesting reflection for me as a learning developer.

The primary role of a learning developer is to help learners achieve that end goal — independence. While there are many nuances to this, ultimately learning developers are aim to work with students to help them develop their own autonomy and self-sufficiency. So… do learning developers really jump to the final stage of Kugel’s model?

Perhaps. At least at first. As a new practitioner starting in the learning development field 9 years ago, I feel I started from day 1 as a practitioner supporting this goal. Perhaps somewhat light in the tools I had at my disposal – but a focus on independent learning all the same. What I didn’t realise was that learning development itself had an underlying literature I needed to understand. As such, I perhaps worked backwards through some of Kugel’s model. I had to back-step and develop myself and my disciplinary knowledge to ultimately make me better at supporting that learning.

That backwards learning was important. It made me appreciate the diverse ways in which most academic tasks can be achieved. Without this understanding, there can be a focus on promoting your practices — or at least a narrow range. Inclusive higher education practices should never aim to reproduce yourself. More importantly, it required me to understand what teaching means, and how in reality, it wasn’t really that important in most learning development encounters. Indeed, it wasn’t even something I did that much. That brings me to my last reflection on this paper.

This final reflection relates to ‘teaching’ itself. The paper focused on teaching alone. However, as educations, we have more tools than teaching alone. As learning developers we are coaches. We are mentors. We are cheerleaders – and yes! Sometimes teachers. Yet, teaching isn’t everything. It is just part of the story.