Bricking it: teaching and researching with Lego
I love my job, but there are times when I really, really love it. And despite corona restrictions forcing us out of classrooms and onto Zoom, I’m having one of those ‘really, really’ times right now.
It’s teaching a group of Honours students in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at Maastricht how to use Lego Serious Play to conduct research. And, of course, we’re learning how to use the technique by using the technique.
All the classes involve building small Lego models to address an issue or answer a question. The basic process is a simple four-step one:
pose a question to a group;
give them a short time – 5-7 minutes – to build their answer to the question with a set of bricks;
the group members then take turns telling a story about the model to the others;
then the group reflects together on the question and response.
Some people might react with just a slight, sceptical lift of an eyebrow at this. But you can achieve important things with Lego Serious Play that traditional social science, and traditional teaching, techniques cannot.
Screenshot © John R Parkinson
The student in the picture above is on step three. She’s built a model of the central idea she wants to explore in her research project, which is about creating behaviour to address climate change and injustice. The left-hand side of the model shows two people climbing some stairs, falling off a diving board into a pool, clambering out of the pool and repeating, endlessly. The yellow path is clearly marked out: it’s a habit pattern, a familiar, well-worn track, the path of least resistance. Her question – her model as metaphor – is how people can clamber out the other side of the pool, walk through the door, and redirect this mobile, powerful, creative, energetic ship that is human society.
Which led to a group discussion of the drivers of continuity when the need for change is pressing, and the start of a doable research project for this student and the other four after three short model-making sessions.
Which in turn led to a great discussion on teaching and learning techniques. Sure, they were building on what they had already learned in more traditional ways by ‘reading a lot of texts’. But, as one student pointed out, they get relatively few chances to synthesise what they know and learn, and apply it to things they are passionate about, let alone get to do it so quickly and creatively. This then led to some pointed critique of the gap between Maastricht’s totemic teaching method, Problem-Based Learning, and the everyday reality in some classrooms. And to a discussion of the value of play for play’s sake, the limits of ‘seriousness’ and objective-setting, the downsides of instrumentalising everything. The revolution begins here, folks ✊.
"Lego Serious Play taps into my imagination in a way that traditional methods do not. I feel like the solutions to problems I come up with are therefore more creative, more uniquely mine."
Marjorie, FASoS student UM
The fundamental ideas behind Lego Serious Play are psychological, communicative and contextual. ‘Projective’ techniques generally – and there are lots of them, from simple word-association to visual and model interpretation to physical building and game-playing tools – allow participants to express things that the norms of verbal expression and everyday behaviour do not. Especially when we get to the model-building end of the spectrum, they level the playing field between researchers/facilitators and participants in two main ways: through the norms of participatory rather than overly-directive facilitation; and through the simple act of engaging your hands to activate brain-hand pathways rather than filtering everything through the conventions of speech. This allows participants to say the unsayable, things that would not be possible in normal, conventional meetings with the boss or – in our case – the professor.
But it also allows participants to access and express things they feel, experience and value but have never put into words before, unfiltered by the researcher’s or facilitator’s expectations of what they might say, the local context, or the limited and almost-always-unsatisfying options on a survey (and check out this classic paper by John Dryzek on the ‘mismeasure of political man‘ by surveys). For example, I learned about Lego Serious Play through a former PhD student at York, Lauren Leigh Hinthorne, who, working in a context in which talking about politics was literally life-threatening, turned to simple visual techniques out of desperation. Suddenly the communicative floodgates opened because people weren’t being asked their political opinions; they were being asked to describe some pictures, which allowed them to say the unsayable.
"Only a few weeks into the project, I can surely say that it has changed my perspective on research. While so far I have experienced research as a disillusioning process to reveal and assess shortcomings, working with LEGO as an empowering technique has made me focus more on the positive impact that research can have."
Max-Luca, FASoS student UM
While my students are not in a life-threatening situation – we took the student stocks away years ago, honest – they are working in a context of academic power, hierarchies and status symbols, even in the relatively egalitarian Netherlands, and of increasing anxiety about prospects after university. Watching them embrace this opportunity to think outside the box has been wonderful; and while some of them are taking more time than others to get comfortable, it’s remarkable how much progress they’re making on sophisticated research projects, and how quickly.
Next time I face a research problem, I know what I’m going to do: find a willing partner or two, and get out the bricks.
For more on the use of Lego Serious Play in political and social research, perhaps start with this: Hinthorne, Lauren Leigh, and Katy Schneider. 2012. ‘Playing with Purpose: Using Serious Play to Enhance Participatory Development Communication’. International Journal of Communication 6: 24.
John Parkinson is Professor of Social & Political Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. An applied democracy theorist, John works on the relationships between formal law and policy making and the broader public sphere, crossing boundaries between social and political philosophy, cultural studies, political sociology and public policy. He is one of the originators of the ‘deliberative systems’ approach in democratic theory, as well as the symbolic, discursive and performative aspects of political action.