The Power of Metaphor and the Brick: How LEGO® can Transform Student Learning in Every Subject Area

LEGO® can be used for more than building cars or bridges! LEGO® models are used to analyze complex systems, understand emotions and be used to communicate in a way that can be more effective and efficient when compared with the written word or pictures alone.  LEGO SERIOUS Play®, a technique used by leading corporations and world-renowned facilitators can be used to transform learning right in your classroom.  The technique is simple to learn and really works.  This article will unfold the basics of the technique and how it was used in a grade six science class.

What is Metaphor Speak?

LEGO SERIOUS Play® or LEGO Build to Express® both use a technique that challenges participants to view LEGO® as more than just a simple building system.  Rather than blocks for building, LEGO® pieces can actually become containers of meaning, similar to words or pictures.  All language is deeply rooted in metaphorical meaning, representing ideas, values and culture.  So too, LEGO® can be used to represent abstract meaning, emotions, feelings and relationships.  Take, for example, the LEGO® dog.  The piece can be used to represent a physical dog.  But with a metaphorical interpretation, this same dog can be used to represent obedience, protection, danger or companionship.  A bucket of LEGO® now becomes a bucket of meaning where students can connect abstract concepts together in new and innovative ways.  The potential connection between abstract ideas can be very rich.  Students begin to make conscious and subconscious connections between building elements; wondering how the dog element fits into a model that expresses, let’s say, leadership.

An adult build that expresses the role of ‘teacher’.

As students move away from concrete physical representations presented by the LEGO® retail side, they too can become master builders; no longer needing any instructions.  Missing bricks or complex builds can be replaced with words and explanation.  The simple rule is: students build what they can’t explain and they explain what they can’t build.  By broadening the scope of a build to include rich metaphorical meaning and conversation, the act of creation becomes much more efficient and meaningful.  A simple green LEGO® brick can be used to build a bridge, or used as a representation of environmentalism, envy of the main character, the signal to take action, a pickle or a peaceful state.

A shared build that shows the influences at play between a teacher and the many internal/external forces that affect student learning.

What is more, because our language is structured using metaphorical meaning, students will often incorporate meaning into their model without necessarily being conscious of its message.  So, students may put a crown on a mini figure (a symbol that denotes control or authority) without much thought, but when other students are given the opportunity to interpret the build, rich conversations oftentimes springs forth.  The technique is simple and it really works!

A student exploring the concept of effective leadership.  Note that rich content can come from very few pieces.  What do you think this scene represents?

Younger students are used to this method of building and explaining; they’ve been doing it since they began to play.  As the student gets older, they lose the open-ended-ness of meaning; sticking to more literal representations.  After a couple class examples (I show them the green brick and they brainstorm what it could represent both physically (a tree) or abstractly (greed), students quickly begin to see the possibilities and begin to layer meaning all throughout their builds.

A student exploring the role of service.  Many questions can emerge from such a build such as: “I wonder what the palm tree in the back could represent?” or “what could each of the two cups contain?”.  Maybe it is literally a liquid or could possibly be an emotion, skill set or experience.

Grade 6 Science:  Invertebrates

Trish Wouters, a grade six teacher, was looking for some alternative ways for students to express understanding.  She was also looking for methods to remediate 21st-century competency skill sets, specifically by providing an experience where students would design, build and test a variety of prototypes.  Together, we came up with a couple of LEGO® interventions that make use of the metaphor speak technique described above and LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robotics.  The latter will be covered in an upcoming article, using both concepts of representation and robotics.

We began by introducing the metaphor-speak technique, each student having the opportunity to interpret a simple teacher build, followed by a series of simple builds that express more abstract concepts.  Examples included: ‘build a model that represents leadership’ and ‘create a model that shows what it feels like when you are listened to by teammates’ (LEGO® Build to Express® is an excellent resource for ideas).  Having already explored a variety of invertebrate animals and armed with a new way of expressing their understanding, students began to create builds that showcased a self-selected invertebrate.

Trish Wouters working with a student to gather the source information needed about the leaf cutter ant.

Using information cards and the internet for reference material, students were able to represent the key physical and behavioural features of the animal, using metaphor and even colour to represent the reactions of the creature to predators or food sources.  Stories naturally emerge from LEGO® creations; students began to create narratives, weaving together scientific fact and narrative fiction into their builds.  The bonding between narrative and fact leads to knowledge that is retained long term and is more meaningful.  By creating a physical LEGO® model of abstract concepts, ideas, and relationships, students remember the build and are able to better explain what each element represents.

Beginning the LEGO® build. Note the use of bats, dogs and chicken legs that are used to represent danger, protection and food sources.
A finished LEGO® build, these students have a lot to talk about!

Each student had the opportunity to record their build and was eager to share their work with students.  Although the actual build time was short, students had plenty to share about their builds.  The technique captured student understanding much more efficiently and effectively when compared with other traditional forms assessment, like reports, powerpoint slides or tri-fold boards.

Finally, students record their explanations in order to share their work with the class.


For more reading on this powerful technique, check out the following sites:

Serious Play Pro Everything you need to know about LSP and corporate facilitators.

David Gauntlett Amazing author and thinker, his work was used extensively to bring metaphor speak into the classroom. He authored a video on the technique: LSP in 3 Minutes

Per Kristiansen:  Master Trainer and facilitator of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY, was head of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY at LEGO, is a partner in Trivium, the focus is the same: Unleashing Play.  His book on corporate LSP was used as a foundation to construct many learning experiences for the school setting. @Per_LSP

Strategic Play A great Canadian company offering training experiences, check them out!


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