Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego

stompocopter

We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling

 

supervising

After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.

journey

I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.

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Pinning down my methodology: Part 2

The Kawa River Model

Having covered the basics of my methodology in Part 1, I now want to talk a bit about research design. Bear with me though, I am still very much on a learning curve with this stuff, so all the ideas are under development.

Why qualitative?

So, as I discussed in the previous post, I will be using a qualitative approach to do my data gathering, as I understand this will allow me to build up the most comprehensive picture of social impact definition, understanding and practices within the wider context of the participant subject areas and experiences.

Interviews and visual representation

I plan to carry out semi-structured depth interviews as well as asking participants to create visual representations of research journeys and social impact interpretations. I am choosing to use the depth interview rather than the structured interview to allow the participants to bring experiences, opinions and topics into the interview which they feel are key to the impact debate, rather than dictating the areas to be covered. This lets the participant be in charge of the conversation direction, hopefully leading to a much more relevant and contextualized set of data.

How to select the participants?

I did think about holding an initial workshop open to all researchers which would be used to identify appropriate researchers who would take part in the longer term case studies. However, I binned that idea after realising that it is too dependent on unpredictable nature of open invites: How many times have you been to/run a training session just to find that half the people don’t turn up? As my research is very dependent on covering a range of disciplines, it seems much more sensible to make a carefully planned selection than to leave it all to chance.

Which subject areas to cover

To make this selection, I will be using my existing contacts and project experiences to identify one researcher from the four broad discipline groupings across the University;

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
  • Arts
  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences

These 4 researchers will be invited to take part in a long term case study over 12 months to explore their understanding and experiences of impact. The case study research will consist of a combination of in depth interviews which will then be transcribed, and visual methods including cognitive mapping and journey representation, possibly in a form similar to the KAWA model.

Making space for the story

I have always been interested in how people tell a story through their research in order to translate it into real-world scenarious and communities. By using the diverse qualitative methods above I hope to build a detailed picture of researcher experiences and give them space to explore their experiences of how impact is generated in their field of work.

Action inquiry – more than data collection

An example of visual research techniques – from http://www.franohara.com/

Today I met with Barry Percy-Smith, the new Director of the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies here at Huddersfield, to introduce myself and get an overview of his areas of work.

Action inquiry

Something we chatted about quite a bit was action inquiry as a research method – which Barry carries out a lot with groups of children and young people in specially designed workshops. This is not a method I have come across before, so I was interested to learn that it differs a lot from traditional focus groups/workshops in that it is focused on the participants and how they respond, not on gathering specific data which the researcher has pre-determined.

Although I need to look into it much more, I immediately thought this might be a method which could benefit my PhD research into social impact – after all, I want to focus on the participants experiences and understanding of impact, not give them a predetermined framework to try and fit their answers into.

Visual methods

This format also lends itself to using visual methods, which I am  keen to look into more. As you might notice from previous posts, I love an excuse to get out the coloured pens and post it notes, and have been considering using a combination of different visual techniques as part of my data gathering stage. I’m currently thinking of using cognitive mapping, perhaps alongside a more narrative-led method such as a river or path with space for stages, actions and experiences.

Anyhow, these are all formative thoughts at the moment – it would be great to hear any opinions/experiences from people who have used action inquiry or visual methods – feel free to comment here or tweet me @megan_beech