Guiding Principles for Creativity and Critical Thinking Applied to LEGO® Education STEM Programs

The Education World Forum blog article entitled “Creative learning and teaching for the 21st century” outlines 7 very helpful guiding principles for “making teaching productive and learning effective.” The gist of the article advocates that “a hands-on, minds-on approach can help students actively take ownership of their learning process and develop 21st-century skills” including collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills. There is a picture of two children playing with LEGO products behind a LEGO® Education logo. (Note: This statement sounds remarkably like the official LEGO® Education line on their website which states “LEGO® Education believes a hands-on, minds-on approach helps students actively take ownership of the learning process and develop 21st-century skills such as creative thinking and problem solving.”)

Rather than getting into a discussion about who sponsored the Education World Forum blog article (which has no author), I will instead apply the 7 guiding principles to evaluate my personal experience with and the learning effectiveness of the STEM Education courses I have been volunteering to instruct robotics with at Daedalos Academy.

Guiding principle #1 – Motivation fuels learning

  • Students doing LEGO® WeDo and Mindstorms robotics are extremely motivated for several reasons: they love LEGO, they’re fascinated with robotics and they get to build stuff. If that was not enough, they also have mission challenges to compete in a Space Exploration themed gamefield. Motivation also comes from the competitive nature of trying to be the first to complete all the missions.

Guiding principle #2 – Hands-on enables understanding 

  • Robotics is of course very hands on, especially if you’re doing it with LEGO. Teams of 2 students have a kit of Technic pieces, including electronic motors and sensors. They then have to build a robot, then program it with a laptop to do various maneuvers. So this guiding principle is definitely checked. Students have all the “opportunities and resources for hands-on exploration and first-hand experience with the learning content”.

Guiding principle #3 – Reflection deepens learning

  • This guiding principle recommends learners engage in reflecting on the hands-on learning experiences they are having. In reflecting on this, I would say students have some opportunity for “micro-reflections” in face-to-face discussion with the instructors, but not enough planned reflection time. This could be done perhaps as a wrap-up activity with the whole class coming together at the end of the lesson for purposeful reflection. Questions like “What did you learn about programming today?” or “What made your robot successful or not in the missions?” would help with students reflecting on what they did in class.

Guiding principle #4 – Mastery enables continuation of learning

  • The idea here is that once learners have “mastered and owned” the knowledge and skills they need to learn, they can then move on to more advanced skills. To some extent this is happening in the Robotics classes when students in the junior levels move on to the more advanced levels. However, it would be hard to quantify mastery or to definitively say students have accomplished all there is to know about, say, the programming skills at their level. Also the next level up in the robotics system (at least for LEGO Education) requires a much different set of skills not only for building (the pieces are different) but also for the programming (much more advanced logic). I think more work needs to be done better defining the mastery skills required at each level in order for instructors to identify definitive “mastery” of those skills. As well the determination of that mastery needs to be in line with real-world skills needed for the “jobs of the future”, in this case programming/coding, engineering, problem solving design challenges, etc. In this a curriculum addition to enhance this goal would be to add a Scratch component to the junior robotics level. Scratch approximates real coding slightly better than the drag-and-drop modular blocks that LabView provides with the LEGO Education products.

Guiding principle #5 – Playful learning is the natural way to learn

  • Definitely agree with this and this goes back to the engagement piece – students are so involved in “playing” with the LEGO Robotics creations that they forget they are actually learning something. Which is what I love about working with LEGO® Education products. Learning through play is a highly researched topic these days. This approach to learning posits that “through play children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments” (Wikipedia article).

Guiding principle #6 – Collaboration enhances learning

  • All students in the STEM Education Robotics program work in teams of at least 2 students each, so there is a natural collaboration that goes on as teams work together to build, program and accomplish specific missions using robots. And there is a natural “social learning” that goes on as teams watch what each other are doing and learn new ideas piggy-backing off of different creative ideas around the classroom.

Guiding principle #7 –Learning is a creative process

  • No mention of  research references to back this statement in the particular article but the idea here is that learning and creativity are “strongly linked.” There is this idea that knowledge is not static, that it changes over time, and the creative process is involved in the creation of new knowledge. How is this being applied as a principle at Daedalos Academy? I think the fact that we have a very iterative process at the core of what the students are doing is a testament to the creative process of learning. That is, students have full freedom to create programs or design robots that have never been created before. That power in itself allows for the formation of new knowledge, as children, through their creativity, come up with new and novel ways to put robotic systems to use, both in play and in solving real world problems (like the amazing First LEGO League Challenge for 2015 – Trash Trek! – all about sustainability and recycling).

The article concludes that with this statement:

Providing this framework for learning can prepare students for future jobs by teaching them how to systematically and creatively meet challenges, constructively adapt to change, and ultimately solve problems together.

It’s exciting to be part of an initiative like Daedalos Academy that has as its vision this very mandate to prepare students for the future careers that haven’t even been invented yet. Getting there will still require a lot of effort and “concerted cultivation” (to use Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase), applying the above principles along with best practices in STEM Education teaching to foster critical and creative thinking in children.

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