Exploring Student Experiences in Classics and Mathematics through Mindfulness and LEGO Serious Play

Houry Melkonian (Mathematics, CEMPS) and Irene Salvo (Classics & Ancient History, HUMS)

As Education Incubator Fellows in 2020/21, we met at the Education Incubator Online Cafè in July 2021. Irene was presenting her project Mindful Classics. Embedding Contemplative Pedagogy into the Study of Antiquity, and Houry her Learning How to Teach Mathematics through the Use of Visual Arts at Primary Levels. We immediately found ourselves engaged in discussing how to teach and learn demanding subjects while maintaining a stress-free focus and having fun. There is a common ground on how arts, literature, and mathematics can function as tools for fostering mindfulness in the classroom.

We aim to explore the existence of collaborative attributes between the two disciplines, Mathematics and Classics, through the lens of mindfulness and visual representations such as LEGO and/or art. At first instance, this might sound like a ‘weird’ or even an ‘uncommon’ statement to mention or even explore, but yet we believe that this overlap occurs. 

Before we delve into the content of this research, let us understand what we mean by ‘collaborative’ in the context of both subjects. The concept of collaboration could be looked at from different perspectives: it could mean ‘similarity in applications’, or ‘contrastive but complementary in nature’, or it could indicate a ‘similarity in the mindset of performers’, so which of those statements does present an accurate reflection of this partnership?

We believe that mathematical thinkers and ancient historians manifest a similar mindset when performing their studies. Thinking mathematically as well as historically means to understand any given information (hypothesis) thoroughly, and to explore how those statements could relate to the desired outcome (findings/results). Both hypothesis and results usually feed into the selection of the approach to be used (proof, or theory), which acquires a concise consideration of justified ideas combined with analytical consideration of its relevance to the main problem. 

However, there are also differences. In the Humanities, there is a tension to find liberation from right or wrong answers, and often asking a question rather than answering it becomes essential to add new perspectives. On the other hand, mathematical thinking is concise and rigorous in nature, and it is based on sequential developments of existing theories. The beauty of thinking mathematically lies in the creative but logical approaches used to answer a given question.

Our first collaboration with students entailed a LEGO Serious Play session within the Classics & Ancient History module Roman Historical Writing (15 credits, UG 1st and 2nd yrs). This module is text-based: students work through the analysis of primary and secondary readings. Therefore, the learning process does not include much visual cues to enhance perception, apart from some images of places, portraits, and material culture shown in the lecture slides. Notwithstanding the scarcity of information acquired beyond texts, the module content offers vivid narratives and spectacular dramas happening during the end of the Roman Republic and life under the Empire. To help students visualise stories and story-telling themes, the LEGO SP building instructions asked to build with LEGO bricks a study room of a historian; to imagine a second brick model as a representation of the meaning of identity; and, finally, to build a model on freedom of expression in ancient Roman culture. Students proposed several creative perspectives that ranged from historical explanations to personal considerations. For example, on the theme of identity, they highlighted the co-existence of multiple, external personal identities, differing from self-perception grounded in interior worlds, both in antiquity and today. On freedom of expression, they worked around images of control and being watched by a ‘Big Brother’ as well as on the limited sources on women’s point of view. Last but not least, the students acknowledged that scholars have to deal mostly with fragments never knowing the full picture. Oral feedback at the end of the session was entirely positive. They ranked it as one of the best experiences they had at the University so far since the visualisation of written texts allowed them to consolidate their understanding and knowledge; abstract concepts often hard to grasp became real when they were there in front of them. It also helped them to think differently and to challenge pre-established definitions.

A model from our LEGO Serious Play session

Our second collaboration targeted an audience of students both from Mathematics and Classics. The session aimed to use visual tools (LEGO bricks or substitutes) to visualise conceptual differences and commonalities between the two disciplines, as well as to find comparable sources of study stress. The session started and closed with a short mindfulness practice: participants were asked to consider mindful sitting (a posture awareness and quick body scan exercise). This was followed by an exercise to set an intention for the session, which included responses such as ‘My intention is to not think about working!’ and ‘to cope with stress’.

The first Build Question was to design a model to represent the challenges faced in their studies inMathematics or Classics. Responses were creatively modelled and metaphorically described by participants. One of the models used scattered game cards with some added structure (a tower) to represent archaeological evidence: pieces are unstable and may fall down. The attempts to create a unifying picture may or may not work. The biggest challenge, therefore, is to collect fragments and attach meaning to them.

Another response was in the form of a colourful tower model: ‘pink is my favourite colour, so there is lots of pink, but then every now and then there is a colour that I do not like as much’, used to describe a study-experience with the pink colour referring to the most enjoyable components of the degree programme, while the other colours representing, for example, ‘a deadline that is not so good’. This was concluded by a beautiful linkage between progression and the mostly used colour: ‘but we are still going to get to the top’ (referring to the top of the tower), ‘and we will graduate soon, and it will be fine… Mostly pink, so it is good’.

A third response was in the form of ‘a winding path, trying to stay on the path to keep going in the right direction’ referring to ‘how easy it is to go completely off track from where I need to be when answering a question’, with a message ‘try to stay on the winding path, but be on track’. Participants discussed similarities and differences between the subjects, finding it helpful to overcome challenges by being mindful of the course components they did or did not enjoy.

To the Build Question n.2 on study related stress-coping abilities, students creatively used cards of different colours to symbolise the different tasks in their workload: cards followed a structure which was not perfectly squared albeit helpful in achieving goals. The emphasis on allowing themselves to be imperfect was aimed at seeing the big picture instead of focusing on small missteps that were part of the academic path.

Students from both disciplines noticed similar sources of stress: from lots of deadlines to the need for various learning skills in different modules within the same programme. Similarly, they found it helpful to learn how to be organised and a good time manager, or how to enjoy study-free days to recover from weeks of intense and never-stopping study. Most importantly, participants underlined that accepting less successful performances, and keeping in mind to watch the Earth from the Moon, made them feel that things were going to be fine after all. Acknowledging and accepting our limits was identified as the first, necessary step to overcome them.

Beside these two student-facing events, the collaboration between Houry and Irene is ongoing. They both enjoy working together as they often find their meetings as a source of mutual support rather than an additional stressing work task to complete. The intention is to continue showing how approaching the study of Classics and Mathematics with the tools of mindfulness and playfulness can offer students a more pleasant and accessible experience of two notoriously abstruse subjects.

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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