Professional Learning as Construction Play

Instructional Design
Online Learning
Professional Learning

By: Eric Hudson

This is Part One of a three-part series, Part Two tells the story of two educators in online professional learning experiences, and in Part Three we meet teachers who engaged in in-person learning.

What is it about Legos?

The tiny blocks have been around for nearly a century, and their resilience in the face of changing technology, attention spans, and global markets is astounding. More than astounding, it’s worth studying.

Take this 7 year old building a Lego version of the Death Star from “Star Wars”:

Watching him — or any of the millions of children and adults who play with Legos every day — is watching the kind of engagement we want from our students at school: focus, intrinsic motivation to problem-solve, and joy. And that engagement has a lot to do with the type of play that Legos inspire, as explained by Ted Trautman in his New Yorker piece, “The Year of the Lego”:

“Lego promotes ‘construction play’ … which calls upon the child to be creative in a very literal sense: she must create the toy with which she wants to play. Whereas a Transformer changes only from humanoid to vehicle and back again, a pile of Lego bricks can transform into anything a child imagines.”

In other words, the most engaging and creative part of playing with Legos is the process, not the product. We’ve all watched children spend hours, if not days, building a beautiful Lego structure, and, once it’s complete, abandon it or destroy it and start over. The endless possibilities of a pile of Legos are more interesting to the child than the static object she builds with them.

The connection between play and learning has been studied, written about, and discussed. A lot. Much of this interest in organic, generative learning has to do with our awareness that traditional modes of teaching and learning don’t prepare students for a world that cares more about how they seek out, construct, and apply new knowledge than what they already know. Meeting these new demands begins with reimagining the role of teacher, the most influential factor in a student’s success.

Absorbing this inspired thinking about student learning led me to a new question, one that’s more about teachers, about their professional learning:

If the core demand for educators is to shift their practice to design forward-thinking, student-centered learning experiences, why don’t they get to participate in forward-thinking, student-centered learning experiences?

As students learn in new and innovative ways, professional development for teachers remains lodged in old practices that haven’t changed educators’ practice.

This is especially true when it comes to technology, a tool that we know can support student agency, voice, and choice and a tool we know students must learn to use responsibly and thoughtfully. Schools are trying to meet this need: according to the National Association of Independent Schools’ Data and Analytics for School Leaders, independent schools purchased 1.5 million new computers in 2015-2016 and spent an average of close to $100,000 per school on professional development.

So much professional development around technology fails because it does not leverage the experience and intrinsic creativity of the teacher; it presents technology as a product, not as part of a process. Let’s change our approach: technology should be a teacher’s partner in design, not an obstacle. 

What if professional learning were more like construction play?

Take a look at the below collage of popular educational technology tools. How do you react? Some might feel inspired, others might feel overwhelmed, still others might feel confused because they don’t recognize some of these tools. This is a key challenge of leveraging technology for teaching: what’s the right tool? How do we choose? Where do we start?

But, what if we viewed this:


As this:

pile of lego

The potential for technology to improve student learning lies not in the tools themselves, but in the person who makes the essential decisions about how to use them. Without a creative mind to shape them, edtech tools are just a pile of blocks. Colorful, full-of-potential blocks, but blocks nonetheless.

Technology does not drive learning. Pedagogy does. Blended learning is the process by which we weave those two together to take teaching practice in new and meaningful directions. How might we create an environment where teachers construct transformative learning experiences for students – experiences enabled, but not driven, by technology?

GOA has identified three key ingredients to successfully addressing this challenge:

  • A knowledgeable coach who can nurture the participant’s intrinsic desire to learn.
  • A community of like-minded peers for collaboration and feedback.
  • Clear understanding of the relevance of the work to teaching, learning, and supporting students.

In parts two and three of this series, I’ll tell the stories of educators who have engaged in this work in online and in-person environments.

Part Two, Online Learning: The American School Foundation in Monterrey, Mexico, has launched a schoolwide initiative to define and implement a strategy for blended learning at their school. As part of that effort, they enrolled a cohort of teachers in GOA’s Blended Learning Design Studio

Part Three, In-person Learning: What are teachers capable of when given the time, space, and support to focus on moving forward on innovative projects? In this piece, we meet educators from the Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland, and African Leadership Academy in South Africa who attended GOA’s Blended Learning Institute in summer 2016. 

Let’s Ask Teachers to Learn as Students Do

I feel confident that the Death Star was not that boy’s first Lego project: he started tentatively, putting blocks together, testing the stability of his structures, breaking things down and starting again. He grew into more complex projects, and he kept going because the toy offered him almost limitless potential for new creations. This is how we want teachers to learn with technology, too: recognize the power of the tool, embrace the messiness of learning it, and design experiences that provide students that same opportunity to be excited and engaged by learning.

Eric Hudson

Eric Hudson is the Director of Teaching and Learning at GOA. His colleagues turn to Eric for even-keeled evaluation of a situation and solutions that account for many variables. Prior to GOA, Eric taught English at Kingswood Oxford and Buckingham Browne & Nichols Schools, where he spent seven years integrating technology into school classrooms. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.