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Study Mindsets in Classics and Mathematics with Mindfulness and LEGO® Serious Play®

11 January 2022

4 minutes to read

Study Mindsets in Classics and Mathematics with Mindfulness and LEGO® Serious Play®

How might the tools of mindfulness and playfulness offer students of demanding subjects like Classics and Mathematics a more fun and stress-free learning experience? Two Exeter academics have been trying to find out…

Dr Salvo (left) & Dr Melkonian

Through their work with the University’s Education Incubator, Dr Houry Melkonian, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, and Dr Irene Salvo, Lecturer in Greek History, have discovered a shared interest in how arts, literature and mathematics can foster mindfulness in the classroom. So what do these subjects have in common?

“We believe that mathematical thinkers and ancient historians manifest a similar mindset when performing their studies,” explained Dr Salvo and Dr Melkonian. “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 between the disciplines. In the Humanities, there is a tension to find liberation from right or wrong answers. 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 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.

Collaborating through LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®

To investigate the potential role of mindfulness and playfulness in these subjects, the pair ran a LEGO®Serious Play® session within the Classics & Ancient History module Roman Historical Writing. This module is text-based: students work through the analysis of primary and secondary readings. As a result, the learning process includes few visual cues to enhance perception, apart from some images of places, portraits, and material culture shown in the lecture slides.

However, the module content offers vivid narratives and spectacular dramas from the end of the Roman Republic and life under the Empire.

basic lego modelTo help students visualise these stories and storytelling themes, they were asked to perform several tasks: building a study room of a historian using LEGO bricks; imagining a second brick model as a representation of the meaning of identity; and building a model on freedom of expression in ancient Roman culture.

The students explored several creative perspectives, ranging from the historical to the personal. On the theme of identity, for example, 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.

Finally, the students acknowledged that scholars must deal mostly with fragments, without ever knowing the full picture.

Feedback from the session was very positive. The students reported that visualising written texts allowed them to consolidate their understanding and knowledge. They also found abstract concepts became more real, while the session helped them to think differently and to challenge pre-established definitions.

Using visual tools to compare Mathematics and Classics

Next, Dr Melkonian and Dr Salvo targeted an audience of students from both Mathematics and Classics. This session used 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, where participants were asked to consider mindful sitting (a posture awareness and quick body scan exercise) and to set an intention for the session.

The first Build Question was to design a model to represent the challenges faced in their studies in Mathematics or Classics. Responses were creatively modelled and metaphorically described by participants.

Playing cardsOne of the models, for example, used scattered game cards and some added structure (a tower) to represent archaeological evidence: pieces are unstable and may fall. 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 winding path, mirroring how easy it is to go completely off track when answering a question. 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.

On the second Build Question, students used cards of different colours to symbolise the different tasks in their workload. The creation of an imperfect final shape helped focus students on seeing the big picture rather than on the small missteps that form part of the academic path.

Students from both disciplines noticed similar sources of stress. These ranged from multiple 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 how to enjoy study-free days to recover from weeks of intense study.

Most importantly, participants underlined that accepting less successful performances 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.

You can read more about their activities on the Education Incubator Blog.


For more information please contact:


Dr Houry MelkonianDr Irene Salvo
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