Since starting my lectureship at Coventry University, I’ve not been great at slow scholarship. I’ve had to write scores of lectures and deliver them for the first time. Through all the hurry, however, I did get one chance to examine my material and try something new.

Lego Learning is something I’d been aware, but a little suspicious of. I worried it would be infantilising and patronising to ask a group of smart adults to play with Lego. I changed my mind when some Lego was brought to an unrelated academic development session. It was a calming thing to have on the table; something to occupy your hands while ruminating about the content being delivered. And to be fair to Lego, they’ve a whole website dedicated to pedagogical strategies for different ages. I wondered if a Lego session would allow students to slowly and carefully think about difficult concepts. Kate Krug talks about a ‘pedagogy of play’ with Lego: I think this is about right, but I didn’t use Lego for unstructured play; instead I turned it into a structured game.

I used Lego Learning to explain two difficult ideas that don’t seem immediately ‘geographical’. First, to explain what feminist geographies are to my third years, and second, to explain what excluded geographies might look like to second years. These are academic concepts that are hard to pin down; they mean different things to different people and are often couched in cumbersome academic prose.

There’s been loads written on teaching abstract concepts, and it’s something educators have to do at all levels and early on. Imagine trying to explain the concept of a foul in football to a 6 year-old without understanding the idea of fairness, sportsmanship and ultimately, right and wrong. Sometimes, an abstract concept can be made clear and unambiguous by demonstration (explaining convection, or Newtonian physics). A simple experiment may suffice, as they did in my GCSE chemistry classes. Other times, if it’s an idea that is contested, subjective and ultimately, individually experienced, it can be quite hard to turn it into something tangible for a whole class. One study found emotional processing helps young children up to nine years old learn positive abstract ideas, after which linguistic processing takes over. Although I didn’t set out to explore this ideas, I now I wonder if Lego could help older students understand an abstract concept through their own emotional experiences of it.

After introducing the concepts in the traditional lecture format for 45 minutes of a two hour session, I asked the students to build their own examples of feminist geographies and excluded geographies in groups of 4 or 5. They had 35 minutes. There were no guidelines. The only rule was that they must be able to explain their design to the rest of the group for the final 40 minutes.

The third years, often drawing on their own experiences, built scenes in the real world. I worried that the frivolity of Lego might undermine the seriousness of the content I was teaching. This didn’t happen. One group of male and female students built a nightclub. The girls explained how certain parts of the nightclub were less welcoming to women. They distributed Lego characters across the club, explaining why each was in a certain place. They used coloured bricks (blue and pink) to indicate how each part of the club was gendered.

I was somewhat uncomfortable as a white, young, male academic, talking about feminist geographies. I know the ideas, but cannot speak to actual experiences of social or spatial exclusion. The concepts, however, were sometimes fleshed out in Lego by the students who had experiences of spatial and social exclusion. The lecture plan was to show how marginalisation and exclusion are spatial processes. Since building lego requires making spatial choices, this point was easily made.

The second years built more abstract scenes. Some tried to build borders, other made houses, and some built downright bizarre, wonderful contraptions. I liked the contraptions, because sometimes, it was clear students had just attached a few bricks to something because, well, that’s what Lego lets you do. However, when I asked about these when presenting, they had to come up with a justification for the strange addition. Some weren’t convincing, but somewhere. I remember one group had built an ‘ideas pump’ that connected to different structures they built.

The idea pump.

The idea pump.

Some more lego models bult by the second years.

Some more lego models bult by the second years.

I also liked Lego learning because it slowed the pace of the lecture. The questions students asked during this time were conversational and informal. We laughed as designs went wrong and delicate contraptions toppled over. Sometimes we discussed which coloured brick to use, other times we dove deep into the lecture content and it’s relevance to a design. I have written about Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the Body Grotesque being the meeting and inversion of the serious and frivolous as a catalyst for humour. I also wonder if play and games can be a catalyst for learning about serious topics.

Coventry University made it extremely easy for me to use Lego. The Disruptive Media Learning Lab has plenty of resources on how they could be used. My faculty has its own supply of four Lego boxes. I simply had to go and pick them up before the lecture. It’s worth checking to see if your university has already experimented with it. Since running those sessions, I’ve found interesting pedagogical takes on Lego, so there’s plenty of literature to back up a session.