Bring out the LEGO

In MSTU 4029 this week we’ll be visiting a local school to see a portal, an immersive audio-visual space, and the school’s Fab Lab.  In preparation, we read an interview with Mitch Resnick, author of Lifelong Kindergarten, professor at MIT’s Media Lab and one of the people responsible for creating the Scratch programming language.  In talking about adoption of the maker movement in schools, Resnick says:

“There are some wonderful instances of people doing great activities around making, and other people who misapply it, and do things in a way that’s too regimented. We’ve seen this in some of the projects we’ve worked on. When we work with the LEGO company on different robotics kits, we see kids doing wonderfully creative explorations and inventions in some places; in other places, the whole class is told what to do and everyone makes the exact same thing. That zaps the creativity out of the process.”

This reminded me of a study in which researchers used LEGO kits vs LEGO free-building to study the impact of task type on creativity in problem solving. The original article, The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity (Moreau and Engeset, 2016) is available through research databases, but also well-summarized here by Psychology Today.  To give a brief overview, Moreau and Engset studied well-defined problems and ill-defined problems.  Well-defined problems have a clear, single answer, have a clear process to arrive at a solution, and often seek quick, logical completion.  Ill-defined problems have no single answer, have a high level of ambiguity, and require creativity to tackle.  Through a number of experiments, they found that subjects who assembled a LEGO kit with step-by-step instructions were less creative in finding solutions to subsequent ill-defined problems that those who were provide with LEGO bricks and the instruction to “build something”(Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  They also found that if someone had been primed for well-defined problem solving, they were more likely to choose a subsequent task that was also well-defined rather than one that was ill-defined (Moreau and Engeset, 2016).  Why does this matter?  Both the original authors and those of the article in Psychology Today ponder whether our increasingly well-defined-problem-lifestyle of ubiquitous Google access to answer any question, step-by-step meal prep services, and other ready-made solutions will make us less prone to seek ill-defined tasks and less creative when faced with them.  Moreover, as AI takes over the well-defined tasks, how well-suited will we be to the ill-defined tasks that face us in solving big problems?  Since most educational technology problems are ill-defined, these findings are worth pondering for anyone who is going to be working in the edtech field.

In light of this, just as we want to encourage creativity in our students, we need to foster it in ourselves and our colleagues.  In my graduate program in 2012, we were able to visit the Google office in NYC.  One of their features was a LEGO room, which we were told was a place for employees to come and foster their creativity.  Seems like Google was on to something there.  Break out the free-building LEGO activities to prime yourself for creativity.

In your next design thinking project, how might your group prime themselves for divergent thinking and creative problem solving?

Works Cited:

C. Page Moreau and Marit Gundersen Engeset (2016) The Downstream Consequences of Problem-Solving Mindsets: How Playing with LEGO Influences Creativity. Journal of Marketing Research: February 2016, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 18-30.


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