Kinder Carousels: Transformative LEGO® Learning and 21st Century Leadership Training

Take a ride on the Kinder Carousel!  Train your intermediate grade-level leaders!  Watch them grow in confidence, instil the spirit of discovery and empower your all Kinders to express their wonderful thinking in new ways.  STEM powered and LEGO® inspired, read on to see the fantastic results of this perfect pairing.

Playful exploration starts off before building a duck.

All facilitators need opportunities to apply and refine their practice by repeating the same exercise multiple times to gain new insights and better questioning techniques to bring out the best from those participating.  As we prepare our students to be leaders of tomorrow, they must have the opportunity to be the leaders of today.  Working with kindergarten teacher Katherine Macleod, we co-created a number of simple carousel style LEGO® centres, targeting specific learning expectations for her students, as well as giving our grade seven leaders an opportunity to present, observe and adapt their own approaches to become better facilitators.

The early stages of a tower and a relationship between these two students.

Learning, in so many ways, is a conversation; an exchange of ideas and sprinkled with gentle encouragements to take the risk and explore.  When given the opportunity to build a one-on-one relationship with a student facilitator, children are better able to express their own learning and to playfully explore a variety of possible solutions.  Throughout the activity, many kindergarten students communicated ideas or did tasks never before seen in the regular classroom setting.  When observing some students emerge out of their shell behaviourally and socially, Early Childhood Educator Lisa Froom remarked several times that particular students would have never made such profound leaps without their grade seven mentors.  Conversely, after receiving many hugs from the kindergarten students and hearing the impact that their efforts had made, the grade seven students beamed with pride, gained confidence and felt the satisfaction that only comes with authentic mentorship.


These powerful pairings unlock learning.

What did we do?

Four teams were tasked with facilitating one 10 minute learning experience station, four times in a row.  Each station focused on different kindergarten skill sets and competencies.  With back-to-back sessions, the grade seven facilitators could better identify what worked and make continual improvements to the instructions, promptings and one-on-one relationship building techniques.  I was careful to observe each team.  During transition times, I would help the students identify any gaps in the instructions or suggest alternative prompting questions before the next group arrived.  The foundation of authentic student leadership is that they facilitate the learning and are to not direct it.  Our facilitators are encouraged to ask probing questions; getting students to clarify and to explain their thinking.  This framework of facilitation acts as a sounding board for students, allowing them to better understand their own thinking and see alternative solutions or perspectives.  It also allowed for plenty of pedagogical documentation by staff members who could, from a distance, observe and record many moments of student growth without interrupting the learning journey.

Here, we see Early Childhood Educator Lisa Froom taking notes from a distance. By documenting important developmental and learning milestones, the kindergarten team is better able to assess student learning and tailor activities that target child-specific needs.

The Stations

Free Build:  Allowing students to be inspired by a massive pile of LEGO® bricks will lead to amazing creations.  With an overwhelming amount of pieces to inspire, many students may enter the build with preconceived goals of, let’s say, building a car.  However, the act of picking up pieces actually inspires new ideas; rapid wonderings how a LEGO® element may fit in or possibly take the build in new directions.  The LEGO SERIOUS Play® adage is, if you don’t know what to build, just start building.  Many are unaware of this powerful process, that in the act of building and touching LEGO®, new ideas, perspectives and solutions are formed.  Who would have thought that playing with LEGO® could generate new ideas, not simply represent cars, trucks and bridges?  Click here for more reading on this subject and how we use LEGO SERIOUS Play® in our practice.  Many of the articles we’ve posted speak directly to this and its tremendous benefits.

A pile of LEGO® bricks offers so much possibility! 

Tower Build:  A go-to LEGO® challenge with a lot of opportunities for learning.  LEGO® towers will all fall the taller they go.  This centre gives many opportunities to try, test and modify solutions.  The grade seven leader is there to slow down the experimental process, discussing what they want to try, what they observed and how they could improve their tower.  Child-sized adversity is the flavour of this station, continual fails, successes and modifying the goals to make it more challenging (just how high can you go?  How strong can you make it?  Can you accomplish the same goal with fewer LEGO® pieces?).

How high can it go?

The Duck:  We spend a lot of time helping students to represent their ideas using LEGO®.  The first step any student must take is is overcoming the false belief that any build must perfectly look like the object being representing.  Before building, students picture all of the features of any given object…but it is simply impossible to capture the totality of features using a brick.  So, we teach the kids to show us the features they are able to represent using LEGO® and to use their explanations to fill in the rest.  This liberation from a perfect representation always leads to rich discussion.  To unlock this new perspective, we begin with constructing a duck (this is the go-to startup activity for any LEGO SERIOUS Play® workshop).

A duck begins to emerge out of the LEGO® brick bin.

The students are quick to represent the physical features of the duck, sharing their creation with their peers along the way.  The student facilitators then ask questions about the features not represented by the LEGO® model, such as feathers, webbed feet, a duck quack.  We discuss the similarities and differences between the ducks in our pond.  It is important to ask questions like: “Can you tell me about your model? or “What does this part represent to you?”.  Even at this very young age, it is so important that students take pride in their creations and have the freedom to explain away any missing features.  It is also beneficial to allow students to interpret the build of others, asking questions like: “What features of a duck do you see on this model?”.  With this form of flexible representation, any student has the freedom to represent the even most abstract of ideas into tangible creations.

The joy of creation, with a helpful hand from this grade seven facilitator.

Build a Copy:  This station challenged kindergarten students to build a copy of a basic LEGO® model.  The grade seven students would build a creation using a few LEGO® bricks and the Kindergarten would build a duplicate.  The grade seven facilitators quickly realized the importance of building a simple model first and gradually increasing the complexity of the model.  Kindergarten students got a kick out of trading roles; they got to build a simple LEGO® model and the grade seven had to build a copy.  Some kindergarten students focused on the colours matching while others focused on the pieces used.  Some amazing discussions were observed, especially when the kindergarten student was asked to explain the similarities and differences between the two models.  The number of and type of LEGO® pieces used, colour comparisons, and actual construction were all possible points of discussion.

How are they similar to each other and how are they different?

Only lasting one hour, the impacts on both age groups was very apparent.  We gained so many new insights about all of our students, their learning and their potential.  With very little work, you too can bring the carousel into your classroom today; prepare to be amazed!

Kindergarten teacher Katherine McLeod listens intently to the stories that pour out of a few simple LEGO® bricks.  To the left, a grade seven facilitator points out possible connection options.

‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’: Applying LEGO SERIOUS Play® in Kindergarten and Early Primary Classrooms

With endless passive forms of entertainment, children rarely ever have a chance to step foot into the desert of boredom; relief only being found in the oasis of the imagination.  If the imagination is left under-developed, our students will not be prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow.  LEGO SERIOUS Play®, a technique designed to unlock creativity and expression, can transform any primary class.

Now, more than ever, the imagination is a skill set that must be nurtured through engaging activities, explicit instruction and scaffolded challenges.  To read more about this process, check out my article on How to Remediate Creativity.  LEGO® is a perfect fit for this task; a simple brick can become a place holder of meaning used to represent physical objects, emotions and even relationships (see: The Power of Metaphor and the Brick).  This powerful form of communication is a skill set that can be taught explicitly, giving students greater freedom to express thinking more efficiently and effectively.


What better place to unlock this potential than in the kindergarten room.  Teachers Ms. Cooper and Ms. McLeod were looking for alternative ways for students to communicate their ideas, within a play-based learning environment.  Not only this, but they wanted to design a task where students were challenged to develop communication, decision making and problem-solving skills. Together, a series of simple mini-sessions were developed and executed over the course of a week and a half.  Take a look at how each was structured with very particular goals.  Although the task appears simple, much higher order thinking and behavioural processes were targeted.  As each session progresses, building supplies will be limited leading to increased collaboration and teamwork opportunities.

Teacher Ms. McLeod listens to a team explain their model. At first glance, this jumble of bricks lacks meaning. However, this build depicts the Christmas Story; Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus are in the centre, shepherds with sheep off to the right and the wise men travelling by camel in the foreground.

Session One:  It can be More than a Simple Brick – the Farm

I always begin any LEGO® Metaphor Speak workshop with participants brainstorming what a simple 2 by 4 green LEGO brick could represent.  Kindergarten is no different!  Students likely will connect it to anything that is green; feel free to push beyond colour representations and towards other representations like animals, houses, and the like.  Like a magician, I hide the brick behind my back and it magically reappears as a completely different object (yes, the trick is lame, but the kindergartens get quite excited by it and can’t wait for the chance to perform some magic on their own).

A student who is very proud of her work.

Students then had an opportunity to build animals on the farm.  For this task, we provided unlimited 2 by 2 stud bricks and a base plate for each student so that they could focus solely on building representations, using words to explain what the model does not show (e.g. “the cow has a tail here, even though my model doesn’t show it”).  It is important that every student has the opportunity to share their creation with each other and potentially the class.  The building is actually the shortest part of any LEGO SERIOUS Play® build, student sharing allows for the cross-pollination of ideas.  A natural consequence with this form of building is storytelling; characters, conflict and relationships naturally begin to emerge: farmers get names, animals get into trouble and crops are being harvested.  I am always amazed at how kindergarten students are quick to narrate very simple builds with rich storytelling and complex ideas.  Yet another example of how we can learn a lot from these little geniuses.

A variety of animals gather around this apple tree looking for a snack and some shade.

Session Two:  Time to Build Another Farm!

A simple build that comes alive as the students discuss what each model represents. Although the form may be limited, students are quick to create whole stories with all of the animals in this barn.

When the students have a firm grasp on creating a variety of representations using 2 by 2 bricks and words, we then added layers of complexity to the task.  Students were asked to build anything living out of white and anything non-living as blue.  Further to this, students were only given one base plate to build their models together.  Before beginning the task, we asked them to brainstorm, as a team, all of the living and non-living parts of a farm.  Students were also tasked with the building as many different types of animals and objects on the farm.  A little story explaining that the more there is to look at on the farm, the more interesting it will be.  This prompt really got the discussion going.

Teacher Ms. Cooper and a student share an “A-HA!” moment during the team build.

Then came the crucial part, they had to decide who was going to build each part.  With favourite animals, structures and machines at stake, disagreements arose.  This intentionally designed child-sized crisis set the stage for many teachable moments as the exercise unfolded.  Compromise and teacher-modeled talk all helped the students to overcome the collaborative obstacles present.

Early Child Educator Ms. Delorme works with a team of students who will run out of bricks once the fenced farm is completed. “I wonder” questions help the team to set goals and to decide what should be built first.

Session Three:  Reinforce with… Another Farm

Another session, another new set of limitations!  Concerned that they may be bored with building so many farms, Ms. McLeod reassured me that kindergarten students could build farms all year long if given the permission to.  Today, each team was only given a small bowl of LEGO®.  The challenge was the same, the discussion prompts were the same.  Teams were now tasked with using the fewest bricks possible to represent a variety of animals and objects. The students had to distribute enough bricks between members so they could complete their models.  More opportunities arose to mediate disagreements between members, and discuss how best a team could achieve the task goal together.  As this build progressed, it was really fascinating to observe how play brought out new narratives between the team members.  This powerful form of co-creative collaboration illustrated how a few simple bricks will ensure our students are ready for the future.

This team of students completes a number of large scale animals. They quickly realized that they could build more animals with fewer bricks.

Session Four:  Putting it all Together

Each session was designed for students to expand the idea of representation using simple bricks, using explanation when the model lacked key physical properties.  Students were also encouraged to create stories out of their farms.  Finally, each task introduced limiting factors that would increasingly force students into child-sized collaborative crisis moments, allowing students to work through the problems with teacher modelling and guidance.  As the students progressed through the exercises, there were marked improvements on all three fronts.

This fascinating build depicts the three wise men to the left, Shepards to the right, the manger in the centre with Mary, Joseph and some animals on either side.

To bring this learning journey to an end, we wanted the students to apply their learning using a topic the students had been studying: the Nativity of Jesus.  As Christmas approached, Katherine shared many picture books with the class, each book discussing the variety of figures, perspectives and challenges faced by Mary, Joseph and the little baby Jesus.  The hope was that students could build a representation of the Nativity, using newly developed collaborative strategies.  Also, we wanted students to use the insights gained from the picture books to better explain all of the elements of their build, and most importantly, how the main figures felt, their thoughts or observations.

Here, we see baby Jesus resting in His Creche, with Mary and Joseph alongside.

Although the build time was relatively short, students were better able to communicate their thinking, make decisions and build representations with fewer bricks and more explanation.  This form of rapid prototyping gives students concrete models that they can speak directly to.  By taking the time to explicitly remediate collaborative and decision-making skills, more time is devoted to the task; making the learning more effective and efficient as students co-create.

Early Childhood Educator Mrs. Froom talks through a disagreement that arose with this team. By modelling conflict resolution skills and positive talk, these students are learning skills that will be applicable far beyond the classroom.

The Zoo is Open: Using LEGO EV3 Robotics to Explore the Wild World of Animals

Are you feeling wild?  Looking for meaningful ways to integrate LEGO® robotics seamlessly into your classroom?  Get rid of student slide show presentations and open a zoo!  Oftentimes, students have the content knowledge but are looking for new and creative ways to express their understanding.  LEGO® robotics not only challenges a student to engineer and program a robot but actually allows students to push their own understanding; designing robots to mimic what may already be found in nature.

So grab your pith helmet and let’s get wild as we show you how student learning can be transformed!

Mrs. Wouters, a grade six teacher, was looking for new ways to equip her students with the 21st-century competencies.  Her students, having experienced the EV3 LEGO® Learning Camp (a student-facilitated program that exposes students to the basics of EV3 robotics and the problem-solving growth mindset ethos needed to be successful), was ready for a real-world challenge.

In partners, students explored the wonderful world of vertebrate animals, discussing adaptations (both biological and behavioural), habitats, food sources, location and reproduction rates.  Each team researched a self-selected animal and recorded their findings in their notebooks.  With content knowledge in hand, students could now stretch their own learning through robotics.

These students test their tortoise to see how it handles on construction paper.

As a fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets growing up, I have always been fascinated by the wonders that were possible with simple crafting materials.  Why not bring that same spirit into the classroom?  Coupled with the creative potential of students and access to a simple animatronic system (LEGO® EV3 Robotics), the students were ready for the challenge briefing.

A beautifully crafted elephant is ready to meet zoo goers, in its habitat.

The Challenge:  Build a model that represents the animal you researched.  Your animal must be mobile (with wheels) and must make use of an additional motor that showcases one of its biological adaptations.  Your team must create a zoo enclosure for your animal, ensuring that its habitat contains everything it needs to thrive.  As your animal moves within its habitat, it must showcase some of its behavioural adaptations in its environment.  Finally, as a zookeeper, you must teach the visiting public all about your animal, pointing out key behavioural and biological adaptations, and any other interesting facts.

This ostrich is prepped to move about its habitat, represented by Phys. Ed pinnies.

Students then began the planning phase, or as we call it, mapping out the design criteria.  Students begin determining all of the features or characteristics the initial prototype must have to meet the challenge expectations.  From there, they assess each feature, determining the degree of difficulty, the amount of time required and its overall importance.  They determine the steps that they must follow, carefully prioritizing and ordering each step or goal.  Before students are allowed to move onto the building phase, each team presents their design criteria, along with engineering sketches, to the teacher for approval.  These interviews prove to be extremely important to the overall success of the student, allowing the teachers to ask questions about the design or the process they plan to follow.  Together, students and teachers are better able to identify potential failure points in the plan or design, in order to help teams to better prioritize goals or identify when new learning is required (use of sensors, alternate materials, more research in how the animal moves).

Design criteria is critical to ensure that all students are successful.  Although this team did not have the time to complete the crafting they wanted to do, both their attachment and program worked successfully.  The paper bag solution was an innovative quick fix in the time they had left to ensure they could present.

Although all students may not complete every aspect of their design criteria, they will have completed the most important aspects; always being able to refine or add to their goals.  Student-teacher conferencing and frequent check-ins allow teachers a meaningful opportunity to remediate teamwork, time management, goal setting and decision making skills.

The early stages of prototype construction.

With the planning phase complete, students begin the building and programming phase.  Students were tasked with constructing the skeleton of the animal, attaching a motorized mechanism that showcases a biological adaptation.  Flapping wings, closing jaws and swinging tails were just some of the solutions.  It is always fascinating to witness how many iterations it takes to move an idea from paper into a working model.  Frustration can quickly creep in; I always encourage students to explore the building elements, see what other students are using and make use of our LEGO simple machines ideas books.  Engineering challenges present child-sized adversity but also countless ways to succeed after plenty of trial and error.  As a teacher, don’t be quick to give an answer or solution.  Rather, ask the right questions or propose alternate perspectives where the student can discover a solution on their own!  With functioning attachments, students then programmed the behaviour of the animal, moving within its own habitat and how it reacts to other animals; both predator and prey.

With design criteria in hand, these students are playing with the pieces to discover how to construct their solution out of LEGO.

With working prototypes in hand, students were given two class periods to turn their bare bones robots into animatronic wonders.  With the addition of foam, fabric and other crafting materials, students had to further refine their engineering to ensure that their robot performed like the studied animal.

The same students with a completed prototype.  They have begun testing their skeleton with foam muscles firmly attached.

The pace was extremely frantic, students using a variety of materials to represent the habitat.  Well versed in LEGO metaphor speak, students used explanation to paint fantastic worlds.  For example, a piece of construction paper could represent a food source, or a coloured brick could be the prey.  Doing so reduces the build time for students, freeing them to explain away missing parts of pieces.

Simple habitats using construction paper and Phys. Ed. pinnies.  This tortoise takes a long trip through a pond to find a food source.
Paige Kosek, our school Library Technician, brings the Makerspace movement into the classroom with mixed media and expertise. Here, the students share their design criteria and blueprints with her before beginning construction.

Teams then moved their finished work to the gymnasium, completed final testing and habitat setup, in preparation for the grand opening of the zoo.  Many students got into character, using queue cards to help them along with their presentation.  Over a one hour period, kindergarten to grade five students rotated through the exhibits, learning all about animals and their habitats from our own grade 6 student experts.  During this time, both Mrs. Wouters and I rotated throughout the exhibits to assess the student work, listening carefully to how the zookeepers answered the questions from other students.  Such a format allows for pedagogical documentation of content knowledge, the learning process and the 21st Century Competencies being applied.  Students also submitted their design criteria’s regularly, with revisions being made throughout the student-teacher conferencing.

Students had prepared notes and rehearsed their performance to match that of their programmed animal.  Presenting their work multiple times allowed students to improve their showmanship; many abandoning prepared scripts, as they collectively grew in confidence.

All told, this exercise was extremely successful, students executed an engaging solution to a real-world challenge and shared their learning in a non-threatening and creative manner.  The school body was buzzing after the activity, with more students looking to create their own animatronic creatures.  Jim Henson continues to inspire, who knows what fantastic creatures our students will dream up next using LEGO!

A brief lull between zoo goers. With close to 150 K-5 students participating in the showing, these expert grade 6 students, along with their fantastic animals, were the stars of the day.







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!


The Expert in the Room is the Room: Redefining 21st Century Student Leadership

Walk through the hallway of any school and you are likely to see a younger student reading with an older student.  In this one-on-one pairing, trust is built between both students, the younger knowing that she can make a mistake and receive guidance, the older experiencing the pride felt when given the opportunity to help.  A reading buddy can go a long way in building particular skill sets in a child, but, more importantly, can give our older students the chance to tangibly make a difference in the life of another.  If this model can work with literacy, why not with STEM?


A grade 7 student explaining the basics of controlling a LEGO EV3 robot.


Nothing energizes a student like the opportunity to help others in a meaningful and powerful way.  Effective communication, collaboration and mediation skill sets have never been more necessary as we prepare our students for an increasingly globalized work space.  But how are they to develop these skill sets if our students are never given authentic opportunities and challenges to put these traits to the test?  

A grade 6 facilitator working with grade 2 students to create an amusement park for a variety of age groups.

Much of our time as educators is spent equipping students with content knowledge and practical skills within the confines of the class.  Yet, these student-experts can be facilitators and, more often than not, can be effective teachers.  Using student facilitators can actually lead to more effective dissemination of technical knowledge and practical learning strategies when compared with the traditional teacher-driven classroom.    

Student leadership has become part of the learning culture at our school.  Students facilitate robotics camps, remediate the inquiry method with younger groups and have played an instrumental role when guiding students through challenge-based learning activities within the classroom.  

LEGO Robotics Camp: a grade 7 facilitator with grade 6 students as they work their way through the labyrinth.

Let’s explore the fundamental principles that we’ve used to inform and empower our students to become leaders of today within the school so that they can become the leaders of tomorrow.

Reorient the Role of Leader

‘Leader’ is a loaded word!  An adolescent, as they grow and develop, can understandably develop a concept of leadership is synonymous with power, control and authority.  Further compounding this, students look to by the ‘leaders’ of popular culture, politics and team captains, some of whom may be anything but.   

A good starting point is to challenge this notion of leadership.  Watch the ideas flow when it comes to the characteristics that define poor leadership.  Gradually students begin to connect the dots, recognizing that true leadership is ultimately a role of service: walking hand-in-hand with teammates to achieve common goals, develop new skill sets and help them to be the best version of themselves.  Leaders listen. Leaders see strengths and come up with solutions to remediate weakness.  Above all, effective leaders care deeply about those who have been placed in their care.  

Finally, I have students define their own role of leader, in the context of facilitating learning experiences for others.  As a leader, we want to help students make decisions in an explicit way and to work together in pursuit of goals.  As a student facilitator (I prefer this term over leader), good questioning and observing is at its heart.   

Student facilitators working with students who are creating a business pitch to sell their innovative 3 Little Pig wolf capturing LEGO WEDO solution.

Guiding, Observing and Questioning

For many students, the roadblock to learning is oftentimes not knowing how to tackle a problem in a systematic way.  As protocols and problem-solving methodologies are explicitly taught and modelled by the teacher, our students will have more tools at their disposal when tackling tough problems.  Student facilitated learning presents an amazing opportunity for student facilitators to model and discuss each step of the problem-solving process with the participating student. 

Our students use the following model:

  1. Brainstorm possible solutions
  2. Select a solution to try and come up with a plan (designs, pictures, lists of materials)
  3. Build and test a solution
  4. Discuss the results and improve your solution

At each phase, the facilitator ensures that each step of the problem-solving process is complete before moving on.  Student facilitators also are able to observe results and ask thought-provoking questions that help guide discovery.  Good facilitators never give the answer, but ask good questions or create learning experiences where the student can discover the answer.  We should never cheat the student out of the experience of discovery by revealing the correct answer for the sake of moving on.  The act of discovery enflames, motivates and ultimately builds confidence in one’s own abilities.  

Student facilitation also provides an opportunity to celebrate successful outcomes, both with the task at hand but also the collaborative and problem-solving skill sets being practiced.    

Sample Observation Questions

Say:  I noticed that (Name) really did this…

Say:  (Name) improved at this…

Say:  (Name) did this well… 

Sample Reflection Questions

Ask:  What did we do well at?

Ask:  What do we need to improve on?

Ask:  What will we do differently next time, in order to improve?

Peer to Peer Facilitation: Student facilitators support same age students construct, test and refine sweeper robots in this clean-up challenge.

Documenting the Learning Process

Student leadership plays a huge role in the documentation of the learning and discovery process.  At any moment, effective facilitation puts the discovery process on pause for reflection and documentation.  Metacognition can be made explicit through discussion with a facilitator who poses reflective questions.  Such promptings are necessary, especially with young, eager learners who want to rush headlong into a solution.  By posing questions, facilitators listen to concrete responses that help the child better understand what they plan to do and the reasons for taking any course of action.  By talking it out with the facilitator, students catch their own mistakes or flaws in thinking, revising and avoiding unnecessary testing phases; ultimately making the learning experience more efficient.  At each phase, the facilitator can document for the child or ensure that the documentation is complete, before moving on to the next phase along the learning journey.    

A facilitator capturing the learning journey of a kindergarten student.

Know your Role

As a student facilitator or leader, it must be stressed that the role is simply to provide the tools so that the student can achieve their goal.  This can be pointing to physical materials, teaching new skills, or by introducing step-by-step protocols to break down the learning process into manageable tasks.  Student facilitators are not allowed to do the task for them, the work must be their own!  With robotics, student facilitators are not to touch the robots but can guide.  Also, they are not to take on the role of disciplinarian, all issues are referred directly to the teacher.  For many student facilitators, this is a major source of relief.  At the beginning of any task, I always make this explicit, for both facilitators and participants alike.  


The benefits of student facilitation are manifold.  It is oftentimes more effective, efficient and leads long-lasting learning when compared to traditional teaching approaches.  For the facilitators, it is an opportunity to develop leadership skills and recognize that they can make a tangible difference in the lives of others.  For the participant, they are more willing to approach difficult or challenging tasks, knowing that the facilitator is there to support, guide and to provide encouragement, walking side-by-side throughout the entire learning journey.  

A student facilitator listening to a grade 2 student explain the various aspects of the LEGO build.

Modelling Maker Space: Making the Journey of Discovery More Effective and Efficient

The Maker Space movement has taken the educational field by storm, empowering students to harness their own creative potential by solving challenges that matter to them and as a way to express their imagination.  You’ve spent a good deal of time finding Maker Space challenges, have all the mixed media materials on-hand and grinning students eager to dive in…but have you considered that they may not have the necessary strategies in place to be successful? 


Maker Space is more than crafting, it is a pathway of discovery, experimentation and learning that few kids experience now in the modern age.  Before the crafting scissors come out, it is important to consider what learning strategies and skill sets need to be explicitly taught before unleashing your kids.  Failure to do so can lead to poor results, frustration and ultimately disinterest in STEAM centred tasks.  As educators, we can explicitly model and design protocols so that the outcome of any Maker Space activity is both efficient and effective.  We want all of our students to succeed, so it stands to reason that they need the time to learn about and practice critical thinking, decision making, goal setting, effective communication and observation skills (to name but a few!).  Maker Space can be a power training place where students make use of these skills and grow in confidence to face the increasingly messier problems of the world.


Dana MacDonald, teacher and FIRST LEGO League coach extraordinaire expressed an interest in designing a Maker Space for her classroom.  She wanted a space that not only actively promotes the inquiry process but a place where students could acquire and practice the necessary problem-solving strategies and protocols, thereby making the entire learning process more effective and efficient.  As these practices and protocols became second nature to the students, it was hoped that students would be better able to design and manage their own projects; setting goals that truly engage and challenge.  Finally, it was hoped that by remediating the strategies involved with the inquiry process students would, could have meaningful opportunities to make new connections and transfer their own learning insights from one situation to another.  

Having designed a series of LEGO Robotics camps and learning experiences, a simple framework was created to guide the students more effectively through the learning process.  


Stage 1: Setting the Stage

With any great task, a person understands their own role within the project and believe that they have the ability to succeed.  Recognizing the importance of this, Dana started this inquiry by looking at STEAM and the individuals who have contributed so much within each of its categories.  By looking at both modern day innovators and those of the past, students were challenged to take on the awesome role of artist, engineer, scientist and mathematician.  Moreover, students were challenged to accept these roles today, not in some distant future or after years of study.  

Stage 2: Modelling the Process

A simple framework of inquiry was developed and then demonstrated, through teacher direct modelling.  At each stage of the framework, we took time for students to brainstorm and document the particular actions or questions to be used during each phase of the inquiry task.  


Phases of the Inquiry Process

1.  Challenge: The challenge is presented.

2.  Solve it:  Brainstorm as many different ways the challenge could be solved. 

3.  Choose it:  Select one of the solutions you have created. 

4.  Design it:  Draw and label an image of your prototype.  Include a list of all the materials you will need.

5.  Test it and Improve it:  Using a chart, students would identify a minimum of three instances where they test their creation, observing what worked, what didn’t and what changes they plan to make before moving on to the next building phase.

6.  Communicate it:  At the end of every challenge, all students share about their learning journey, demonstrate their solution and discuss some of the challenges faced along the way and what they did to overcome roadblocks.  This can take many forms including video posting, business pitches, or writing pieces.  

Explicit Teacher Modelling

Our challenge was simple: to devise a way to help Bob, our LEGO mini-fig across a 30 cm body of water.  Students came up with a wide range of ideas.  As teachers, we took care to document each idea, modelling the documentation process that was expected from students. 


Before choosing the solution we were to attempt, students were then asked to consider the limitations placed on the challenge: time limit of 2 hours, the building materials being only LEGO (we later added string) and that at no time was any part of your body to pass over the river.   After selecting a solution, Dana drew a detailed design that included multiple perspectives, labels and arrows indicating the direction of movement.  We also included a materials list, although limited by the challenge itself.  By modelling the process and demonstrating what the expectations were for each phase of inquiry students had a much better idea of the process.  

Stage 3: Gradual Release and Skills Reinforcement

Students were then tasked with completing the challenge on their own.  An important note that we have found critical to success.  Before a student moved onto the next phase of the inquiry process, students would check in with the teacher who, after a short conversation, would sign off on the respective phase, offering input related to the documentation.  


This was especially true during the prototyping phase, where testing and improving their solutions occurred.  A major goal was to slow down the pace at which students move through the phases, allowing for periods of reflection before enhancing a solution.  Students typically opt for the first solution that pops into their heads, rather than carefully considering all potential options and selecting the one that best fits the situation.  By signing off on each documented prototype observation and improvement phase, the teacher could have highly constructive conversations and ensure that student thinking has been properly documented, as a scientist or engineer would.  Students were required to complete a minimum of three prototyping phases in order to pause, evaluate and determine the next steps in the building process.  


As each student-teacher conferencing opportunity occurred, students gained greater insight into the inquiry model.  Having achieved a solution, students were also challenged to increase the level of difficulty on their own; moving away from straightforward solutions to solutions that involved greater engineering challenges.  As students came to recognize their own role in determining the criteria for success, they likewise became more empowered to set the bar high, adding increasing layers of difficulty to their own design criteria.  


This speaks to the striking advantage of Maker Space, in that it challenges students not only to come up with a solution but to dream up a solution where they are challenged to innovate, learn and test.  Many students were able to solve the challenge quickly, yet were excited to have the opportunity to push their own learning towards tough solutions that would hopefully prove more effective (many original solutions would have required Bob the mini-fig extensive recovery time at the hospital).  With a successful outcome becoming less important in the eyes of the student, the challenge of the learning journey becomes the priority; ultimately the joy of learning and discovery being the source of pride, rather than the win.  


Next steps will include rolling out this approach in the Kindergarten classroom and to try out the use of STEAM student facilitators to guide, assist and document new Maker Space initiates.  Stay tuned!