Serious Play: how LEGO® can help build learning communities and knowledge
Back-to-school supply lists commonly include items like notebooks and pens, but these days you might find an unexpected addition: LEGO® bricks.
LEGO® is thought to be the world’s most popular building toy, and is a highly recognisable brand. Yet that wouldn’t usually recommend it for use in an educational setting.
However, LEGO® can be used in the context of ‘serious play’ – a method of learning where participants harness the power of joyful creativity to solve real-world problems.
This remarkable teaching technique has been introduced to the University of Exeter by Dr Holly Henderson, Senior Lecturer in Management, Business School. After running immensely popular sessions across three colleges and to university partners, Dr Henderson secured funding from the Education Incubator, which supports academic staff in exploring and developing innovative teaching concepts and ideas. This has allowed her to train an extended team of LEGO® Serious Play® facilitators to expand the reach of LEGO® across the university and beyond.
Serious play sessions tend to feel relaxed and informal, even boisterous, but their outcomes are both meaningful and memorable. Research shows that the LEGO® Serious Play® technique can help students experience emotional positivity and a ‘state of flow’, which enhance engagement and lead to deeper, higher-quality learning. As sessions are delivered to cohorts working in small teams, it can foster a sense of community, facilitate peer learning, and allow participants to better understand and empathise with others’ points of view.
To date, the team have delivered over 80 sessions to nearly 3000 participants, using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to run sessions remotely to students, staff, and partners based around the world. The workshops have explored issues as diverse as sustainable energy, equality and diversity, employability, curriculum design, and overcoming writer’s block. Thanks to support from the University of Exeter Annual Fund, students will soon be able to sign up for a series of LEGO® Serious Play® sessions designed to support mindfulness and wellbeing, helping to combat mental health problems created or exacerbated by the global pandemic.
While some workshops are offered centrally by the LEGO® Serious Play® team, others are bespoke sessions designed in collaboration with module leads who feel the technique will offer a stimulating new way to approach the subject content. Students taking part in LEGO® Serious Play® sessions have described them as enjoyable, inspiring, surprising, and novel. Module convenors have praised how the technique ‘got students talking’ and helped build a community despite the remote learning conditions.
LEGO® Serious Play® has also been hugely beneficial to the newly-trained facilitators – many of whom had no previous experience with playful learning or creative teaching techniques. Learning about the LEGO®-based technique has been just the first step, with some going on to explore further dynamic teaching approaches such as gamification – using design elements from gaming to enhance education.
This type of learning also aligns well with the institution’s longer-term Education Strategy: in particular, the innovative pedagogy of the Learning Reimagined theme, the student-centred approach of Success for All, and the employability and critical thinking aspects of Graduates of Distinction. LEGO® Serious Play®, along with similar playful techniques, allow the university to respond to a growing sector-wide focus on learning as knowledge production, innovation, and solving complex real-world problems.
But while the development of transferrable skills is a wonderful element of these workshops, it is probably not the feature most appreciated by students. Instead, they tend to focus on the ‘great creative thinking’, the ‘surge in creativity and imagination’, and the ‘fundamental enjoyment’ they get from these workshops. Serious play indeed.