Collaborative problem solving (CPS) is an important 21st century skill. CPS is important, because both manual and non-manual work are increasingly non-standard, and because of this, the requirements for both problem-solving and collaboration at work are increasing.
In this post, I will take a look at how the use of LEGO and LEGO DUPLO bricks can help children learn collaborative problem-solving skills. One might argue that simply playing with such toys is already excellent practice, but I will demonstrate how formal teaching tasks can also be designed around the use of these tools, which enable systematic practice, and, if desired, assessment.
Collaborative problem-solving is receiving a lot of attention as of late. It has been announced that starting in 2015, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will start testing collaborative problem-solving in addition to its traditional trio of science, reading, and math. The topic has also been a target of a major academic research program, Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S).
But what, exactly, is collaborative problem-solving? It is a complex skill that consists of problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking, and also of communication and collaboration. The core idea is that problems people face at work are so complex that no individual can solve them alone, and therefore it is useful to practice methods of solving them together.
I have previously argued that in fact, the PDSA cycle has always been a collaborative effort, and as such there is not that much new here. I have to admit, however, that it is usually a lot of work to teach adults to apply the PDSA cycle, so from that perspective teaching these skills already at an early age can only be seen as positive.
Collaborative problem-solving and LEGO
The ATC21S approach to assessment and teaching of 21st century skills focuses on teaching them through online tasks. However, collaborative problem-solving is perfectly suitable for teaching live as well! This should not be surprising, given that most actual collaborative problem-solving done in the world happens face to face. This is where the use of LEGO can help!
There are multiple options how to develop a CPS exercise using LEGO bricks, or the larger LEGO DUPLO bricks. What is common for each is that the resources (bricks) are divided to the participants or the task is otherwise designed so that they will need to collaborate to solve the problem.
The problems can be engineering problems, in which the students receive different shapes of bricks, or they can be collaboration problems, in which the students receive different colors of bricks. The number of students participating in a task can differ, as long as there are unique shape or color combinations available.
Some of the computer-based tasks developed by the ATC21S could also be carried out with LEGO bricks. A good example is the balance beam task (seen on this introduction to CPS video), in which students attempt to balance a beam by placing loads on it, each on their own side. The beam and loads could be made of LEGO bricks to bring the task into the real world.
It is fair to point out that the use of LEGO in education is not new. Actually, even the company itself has an education division, LEGO Education, that designs and sells LEGO sets for various teaching purposes. However, I am not familiar with exactly this type of teaching application with LEGO bricks.
The “Build a picture of a tiger with LEGO DUPLO” task
To give you more detail, I will present a simple collaboration task based on different colors of bricks, suitable for two or three students. I designed this task with my wife, and our children served as test subject, so I can claim with some confidence that this task works and is fun!
The task is to build an image of a tiger using LEGO DUPLO bricks. There are three colors of bricks used in this task: yellow, white, and black. The bricks can be divided by color, or to yellow and white/black for two students.
Here is a picture of a sample set of bricks (with blue representing black, we didn’t have enough black bricks) and some sample solutions: the tiger can be depicted, for example, from the side or front, standing or crouching, and looking at different directions. It is important to distribute more bricks than are needed to solve the problem! This way more options open up, and the need for collaboration increases, as the students need to communicate on how they are going to depict the tiger.
This particular task is designed to improve the students’ abilities in the social strand of the ATC21S two-strand CPS developmental progression. It is targeted at students who are between 5 and 7 years of age. Such students are likely to have some level of expertise in social skills – they are familiar with social collaboration through play, and this task begins a journey for them to translate those skills into a more structured environment. They may start off at different levels in such an environment, ranging from A to D, but with teacher intervention if needed, they should be able to increase their level of collaboration rather quickly to level C at least.
For this age group, younger than generally considered in the ATC21S materials, it makes no sense to provide the students with information on their assessed position on the developmental continuum. Instead, the teacher uses her know-how of the CPS developmental progression to scaffold the student’s learning. In order for this to work, there can only be a limited number of groups working on this task in the class at a time, with the teacher observing each group in turn and intervening through comments and suggestions to help the students improve their collaboration based on her observations.
Level A, independent working. Students operating at this level will try to build the tiger mostly themselves, but because the resources are distributed between the students, this will inevitably fail to produce an adequate result. They can be guided to a more collaborative approach, for example, by suggesting that the tiger might need some stripes, or some white color to its face.
Level B, supported working. Students operating at this level are quite passive in working with their partner. If their partner is on a higher level of skill, they may be able to encourage the student sufficiently. If not, the teacher can guide the students, for example, to consider the various directions from which the tiger could be depicted in order to get them to start thinking about it together.
Level C, awareness of partnership. This is the minimum target level for the students to reach with the help of this exercise. At this level, the students are able to successfully collaborate and solve the task as equals without teacher assistance. The teacher can guide students further by encouraging them to reflect on their own performance.
Level D, mutual commitment. At this level, in addition to completing the task, students can also evaluate their own performance. The teacher can guide students further by encouraging them to reflect also on their partner’s performance and discuss their performance together.
Level E, appreciated & valued partnership. At this level, students can evaluate their partner’s performance. The teacher can guide students further by encouraging them to play around with various solutions to the task and discuss how these solutions affect their roles. If they are thus able to achieve a complete understanding of the entire task framework, they will reach the final level, Level F, cooperation & shared goals.
There are plenty of opportunities to using LEGO or LEGO DUPLO for teaching CPS. The tiger task described above is a simple application, but more complex applications can also be designed and implemented in the classroom. Together, they could then create an entire path to more and more challenging collaboration and problem-solving, eventually culminating in a high level of ability ready for use in real-world applications.