Brick by brick: the Lego approach to learning

DCU’s Lego innovation studio is developing creative approaches to teaching science and maths. It might sound like a gimmick but it seems to be working

 

Many parents might not take kindly to hearing their children have spent most of their school day playing with Lego.

Nine-year-old Sorcha Ní Scollaí, however, has no such reservations. She, along with two of her classmates, is trying to figure out how to transform a tadpole made of Lego bricks into a moving frog.

“It’s adding fun to learning,” she says, as she adds some hind legs to the model. “I use Lego at home, but this is different.”

The modified kits produced by the education division of the Danish toymaker include sensors and bricks that respond to commands remotely through simple coding instructions.

There are squeals of delight when – via an app on their iPad – the girls’ newly built frog hops across the table.

“Hey, we can make it even better if we add this elastic band,” says Sorcha’s classmate Riona.

The girls are part of a group of more than 100 students from Scoil Mobhi, Glasnevin, who have gathered in computer rooms at the St Patrick’s College campus of Dublin City University in Drumcondra.

Each small group is building a different model – ranging from bees and flowers to trucks and robots – aimed at helping them to understand the basics of biology, physics, maths and computer programming.

It might well be a glimpse of what the classroom of tomorrow will look like.

This is DCU’s new Lego innovation studio, which is teaching children – and their teachers – about innovative and creative approaches to teaching the so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in the classroom.

Dr Deirdre Butler of DCU’s new institute of education acknowledges that many people might be inclined to think of Lego as just another classroom gimmick.

But, she says, these miniature plastic bricks are part of a new approach to learning that will prove vital to students seeking to develop the kind of skills needed in the modern workplace.

“This is hands-on, engaging, meaningful learning,” says Butler. “The idea is that students can engage with concepts in a very concrete way; it’s not just pictures in a book.

“Take a look around,” she says, pointing to small pods of students, all absorbed in their work. “There is real engagement. There are no discipline issues. This is an exciting, problem-solving environment, and they’re learning about complex concepts like force and friction, but they can actually see what’s happening.

“It’s also quite a scientific approach: they’re changing variables with the Lego models and seeing the effect it has. They’re problem-solving and debugging when things don’t work out. This is the foundation for big ideas in science, engineering and maths.”

The old “chalk and talk” approach to learning was fine in the days when people had the comfort of a job for life, which tended to involve doing the same thing over and over again. These days, Butler says, a growing body of research indicates that the modern workforce will require flexible learners who are problem-solvers, team workers and creative thinkers.

Informal learning

The idea of using Lego or other bricks for informal learning is hardly new. But what is happening at DCU, and a growing number of schools, is on another level. Pupils are using a product of Lego Education – a specialist arm of the company – that comes with programmable sensors and gears, along with teaching guides.

Is this a sign that Lego – not content with being the world’s most profitable toymaker (the company made the equivalent of more than €1 billion in profits last year) – now wants to fill every classroom with its bricks?

The kits are not cheap. A classroom pack that includes bricks, software and teaching guides for eight to 24 students, costs about €660 online.

Role in teacher training

Ross McGuire of Stem Solutions, Lego Education’s partner in Ireland, says the kits are durable and highly adaptable.

The company is also involved in outreach projects in conjunction with DCU that are training teachers and tying projects in with the school curriculum. Schools will also have access to the university’s innovation studio when it is fully up and running.

Although the kits are aimed mainly at Stem subjects, other versions are designed to boost children’s literacy skills.

Primary schools are not the only organisations using them: universities and companies are using more advanced kits for robotics and for building prototypes.

At DCU the focus is on providing student teachers with the skills to provide more hands-on learning in the classroom. After all, if the workplace is undergoing a dizzying rate of change, the classroom will too.

Jason Carroll, a third-year student training to be a primary school teacher, has seen first-hand how these approaches are energising young students.

A criticism that is sometimes levelled at student-led learning is that problem-solving is not a replacement for basic knowledge. Carroll, however, says he and other trainee teachers spent time preparing for today’s event by meeting pupils at Scoil Mobhi and teaching some of the key concepts.

In the case of the group of girls modifying a tadpole, for instance, they were taught about the life cycle of the frog so that they had a basic knowledge of biology before being let loose with the building kits.

“The building instructions that come with it only go so far. What was interesting was to see how they went about building the frog themselves, overcoming problems, adapting it and creating something without the aid of any instructions,” says Carroll.

“You can see the impact of that kind of inquiry-based learning. Instead of just transferring knowledge, they are discovering things for themselves. It has a much bigger impact. It sticks with them.”

As the session draws to a close, the din of excited chatter lulls briefly as a final problem-solving task is presented to the students. “Right, it’s time to tidy up,” yells one of the teachers. “Everything back in the boxes, please.”

There is a sigh among some of the groups of children. It’s a reminder that at least some skills – even in the 21st century – will always be in demand.

CREATIVE CLASSROOM: FIVE WAYS TO USE LEGO

  • 1 Maths problems: Given that bricks come in many sizes and that the number of studs they have corresponds with their size, some teachers use them to visualise maths problems and understand fractions, prime numbers and other concepts.
  • 2 Chemistry basics: Teaching the concepts that underpin elements, compounds and atoms can be a challenge. Some teachers use the colour-coded bricks to help students navigate their way through the world of chemistry and help understand the relationship between elements and compounds.
  • 3 Robotics: Some advanced classes use Lego to build robots, often to solve particular problems. Some of the best designs are entered in competitions and are typically judged based on their physical features, programming and performance.
  • 4 Computerless coding: Lego can be a good way to get across the basics of coding – without requiring access to a computer. Lenny Dutton, a blogger and teacher, details one approach, which involves students playing the role of a robot and following instructions to build simple Lego models.
  • 5 Creative writing: Lego can help teach maths and science , but creative writing? Some teachers allow their students to use Lego characters to visualise their stories or provide inspiration. They are also used to help non-native English speakers get engaged and understand what is going on in class.
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