The LEGO Dilemma

My childhood indoor playtime was consumed by construction toys — Lincoln Logs, Wood Blocks,Tinker Toys, an Erector set, and my favorite: the large collection of LEGO pieces that we kept in an old Charles Chips canister. My brother, sister, and I would dump the interlocking rectangular prisms on the family room carpet and proceed to create LEGO structures and vehicles, sometimes bringing in the wood blocks, Lincoln Logs, and our Matchbox cars to create an entire city.

LEGO sets with instructions were not yet widely available in the early seventies. I remember when I first saw the LEGO mini sets on the shelves of Eisenstadt’s Hardware Store and my first purchase: the Rescue Set, with instructions to build a helicopter and ambulance. The set probably had only 15 pieces in all for each item, but for once they were not all right angle bricks, and the set included a spinning rotor!

In the ensuing years, LEGO fully developed its instruction based kits, introducing the architecture series and themed sets drawn from pop culture franchises like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Each new each kit delivered new oddly shaped and dynamic bricks. This combination of creative exploration and exciting, challenging construction kits cemented my lifelong relationship with the LEGO building toy.

LEGO now markets itself not just as a construction activity, but as a STEM education product, including its sophisticated Mindstorms robotics line. These packages challenge students to follow instructions to complete a sophisticated construction project, and in doing so, create a greater opportunity for fact-based, guided learning. Is this more educationally beneficial to students than simply allowing them to play and create with a pile of bricks?

This question exemplifies a central debate in education right now. Should classrooms be places where creation and innovation can thrive in freestyle guided environments, or should students receive instruction on basic skill sets providing them with tools they do not have?

Experts continue to debate and evaluate the subject. On the one hand, Manoush Zomorodi in her Podcast Note to Self investigates this “kit vs no kit” debate in LEGO Kits and Your Creative Soul. Her report on a study in which some students built instruction-guided LEGO kits while others engaged in “free building” suggests that while kits do succeed in teaching “concentration and persistence,” students in the “free building” group scored higher on creativity tests administered to both groups directly after the building exercises.

The podcast goes on to highlight another study that determined that students who scored high on standardized tests performed poorer in areas in of creative thinking. These experiments show what many researchers have concluded: cognitive processes transfer over to the next task, and the mind takes time to reset from one mode of thinking into another. Therefore, consistent emphasis on following direct instruction hampers creative thinking.

On the other hand, Daniel T. Willingham underscores the concept that creative thinking requires knowing facts. In his book Why Students Don’t Like School, Willingham recognizes that while environments in which children are excited to learn are most beneficial, it is also a “conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts,…critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving-are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.” New knowledge builds off of old knowledge and knowing stuff helps creative thinking.

Are we better served to provide students with the structured instruction that guides their learning, or to provide the free space for experiment, discovery and creative play? MIT researcher Mitch Resnick’s work has been dedicated to providing environments for innovative approaches to learning, and he uses the two approaches to LEGO play to examine this very question.

In his recent book Lifelong Kindergarten, he introduces the “playground vs. playpen” metaphor and he compares open LEGO play to the “playground” where children “can build almost anything they can imagine,.. they can take apart their creations and make something new — in an endless flow of creative activity.” In contrast, he then likens LEGO kits to the “playpen,” a limiting environment where children are “learning how to follow instructions, but they aren’t developing to their full potential as creative thinkers.” However, he also he clarifies and validates the worth of the playpen approach as well:

“Sample projects on the LEGO box offer one type of structure, providing inspiration and ideas for children as they get started. By following step-by-step LEGO building instructions, children can gain expertise with the materials, learning new techniques for building structures and mechanisms.”

While he clearly argues the greater value of imaginative free play, he concedes that the value of kits as a vehicle that supports the journey toward effective exploratory learning. “If the goal is creative thinking, then step-by-step instructions should be a stepping stone, not a final destination.”

Where, then, do we as educators need to place our emphasis? Traditional debate often frames such quandaries as dichotomies, with stark “either/or” outcomes. However, the LEGO dilemma is a false dichotomy — as traditional debate also teaches, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Free building and open play place our minds into creative thinking mode, but the great ideas our minds develop in that mode are often built off of knowledge we have acquired and that which inspires us.

The lessons presented by LEGO learning suggest a framework that will support our efforts to adapt to the increasing rate of change we encounter each day — a model that sets us up as lifelong learners: be curious, research, seek inspiration,and make connections. Experiment and play, ideate and create. Refer back, revise, compare and remix. Build the kits, break them down, toss the pieces in a bucket, shake, dump the mix on the floor and release your imagination!

reposted from Hackley Perspectives

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Top Ten Tech Tips & Tricks in Animated GIFS

10 – Flash on Safari


Is an Adobe Flash error message preventing your students from using the Safari browser? Simply have them use Chrome or Firefox instead to keep your class on track and report the problem when you have a moment.

9- Google Trap


Have you ever found yourself stuck between your multiple Google accounts and unable to get to your Google resources? Navigate to and click on your name in the upper right, log off, and then login to the Google account you wish to use.


Password not working? Check the caps lock key, also please check that you do not have a space before or after your username or password.

7 – Homepage look weird?


Do you have a mystery homepage in your Chrome browser? Or, is Chrome just acting wacky? You might have inadvertently installed a Chrome Extension you do not want. Click on the “three dots” in the upper right, click on More tools, then choose Extensions. Scroll through and trash any extension you do not want.

6 – Not Printing?

This is more a plea from IT than a tip/trick. If the item you printed does not show up in the printer you sent it to, PLEASE DO NOT try to print it again. Please double check all of your settings and submit a tech ticket if your job will not print. Printing multiple times simply backs up the printer queue and makes the issue more difficult for IT to resolve.

5 – Google Boxes

In the upper right corner of any Google page is a 3 X 3 set of boxes. Clicking on the boxes will reveal a navigation page to many Google apps.

4 – Need to get Hackley email on your iPhone/iPad?

Go to Settings, Mail, Accounts, Add Account, Exchange. Enter your email address and password and you should be all set.

3 – My desktop is not showing up on the projector!

This usually means that you do not have “mirroring” turned. On a Mac, go to Preferences, click on Display, choose the Arrangement tab and click the Mirror check box.

2 – No sound from the Smartbox?


You may have forgotten to turn on the amplifier switch on the bottom of the box or someone may have pressed the Mute button on Smart Box volume controls.

1 – The Restart!


Please remember that one of the most common remedies is to simply restart or power cycle your device.

Still stuck? please do not hesitate to submit a Tech Ticket!

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NYSAIS STEAM Camp @ Carey Conference Center, Rensselaerville, NY

Schedule and Resources

Workshop Facilitator for sessions:

Little Bits
Extraordinaires – Design Thinking Game
Physical Computing
Woodworking Basics, Knots and lashings

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A Design Approach to Problem Solving in Project Based Learning @ STLinATL

July 27 -28, 2017 • College Park, GA

view on SCHED

The teaching of the skills of problem-solving has long focused on a structured algorithmic approach. Design Thinking has also arisen as a trend in K-12 curriculums as a more abstract approach to product creation. What do these two approaches have in common and how can the skill from these disciplines be applied in education, especially in the area of project based learning?

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Phishing, Ransomware and Digital Spring Cleaning

Did this weekend’s global Wanna Cry ransomware attack scare you? We have taken every precaution to prevent it from being an issue at Hackley so you and your data will be safe. As always, the most important measure is to not click on any links or download attachments from suspicious emails. If you encounter a suspicious email. Please let me know immediately.

If this is a wake up call for you and you would like to take some time to secure your digital life, below is great deal of information to assist you. If you would like any assistance with working your way through any of it please let me know.

-First – Backup!

Did you miss World Backup Day?

If you have a current backup you will not have to worry about paying a ransom to get your files back.

If you are already an avid Google Drive user, you may already be in good shape. Please remember that your Hackley Google Drive account has unlimited storage.

“A Quick Guide to Backing Up Your Critical Data” -NYT

-Create Strong Passwords

One of the most effective methods of cyber attack is to simply use your password. Hackers can get a hold of your password through strategies such as brute force and social engineering. This is why is essential that you have strong passwords and that you do not share them. Here are some resources to help you create strong passwords and keep them safe.

From XKCD:

Test Some Sample Passwords

This List Of 2014’s Worst Passwords, Including ‘123456,’ Is Embarrassing” | TechCrunch

The best password managers for PCs, Macs, and mobile devices” – ITworld

Run Updates

This is a fairly straightforward process. Updates help to prevent against from cyberattacks as software manufacturers often know about the vulnerability before hackers have a chance to exploit them.

Update your Mac

Update your PC

-Digital Security and Privacy

Protecting yourself from malicious online attacks is one thing. However, you also may wish to consider how private you wish to keep your online footprint.   Both digital security and online privacy come to down to educating yourself and determining how comfortable you are with access to your personal information online. Here are some resources:

Would you fall for a phishing attack trick?  Try this online quiz.

Test your home router (Note: This is part a home digital security commercial solicitation)

“Protecting Your Digital Life in 8 Easy Steps” – NYT

“Net Neutrality Explained”  – NYT [Video]

“What the Repeal of Online Privacy Protections Means for You” – NYT

Net Neutrality II: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) [Video] (Inappropriate Language Warning!

I highly recommend listening to Note To Shelf’s The Privacy Paradox podcast series or at the very least please review their  Privacy Paradox Tip Sheet

-Decrapify your devices

Now that you have your online self in order, consider some spring cleaning. Take the time now to remove all those files from your desktop and set up a system of “foldering” to keep yourself organized in the future. One personal trick I use is to create a folder named “temp” on my desktop. Instead of saving random downloads to my desktop and cluttering it up, I save them in the “temp” folder. If I ever decide that the file is vital to keep I move it to a more appropriate folder in my document folder or upload it to an appropriate folder on Google Drive. Some more resources:

Start the year off right with a clean PC | PCWorld

Has your browser homepage or default search engine been hijacked? Do you feel  like your computer might be the victim of adware or malware? Consider downloading, installing and running Malwarebytes.

-Get a Handle on Email

How many items are in your inbox? (and how many are unread?) Consider setting aside some time to do some massive deleting. Remember, the Deleted Items folder is just another folder of your mailbox. Deleting does not remove the items forever.

If you would like to become more efficient in managing email, consider one of our Head of School’s favorite tools, Boomerang, which helps with composing and scheduling send times of emails.

Tired of Spam? There are several online tools that can help unsubscribe from commercial email lists all at once: “3 tools that easily unsubscribe you from emails” – PCWorld



Still holding onto that old computer? Are you afraid to throw it out for fear it will end up in a foreign country’s landfill ? First check with Jed to see if it is worthy to be in the G201 computer museum. You may wish to repurpose it:

How to sell, recycle, or donate your old Android phone

Ingenious Ways to Repurpose Your Old Tech – PCMag

However if you just wish to throw it away, please stay tuned to an upcoming announcement about environmentally recycling your old tech here at Hackley.

Tech Mindfulness

Does all this stress you out? Consider taking advantage of some of the available mindfulness apps:

5 ways to tap into the mindfulness trend with technology | TechRadar

Overwhelmed? Completely understandable. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or would like to schedule some time to work through some of this

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Design Approach to Problem Solving Through Project Based Learning @GCDS Maker Faire

Greenwich Country Day School Maker Faire 4-4-2017

Design Approach to Problem Solving through Project Based Learning
Upper School Graphics Lab

The teaching of the skills of problem solving has long focused on a structured algorithmic approach. Design Thinking has also arisen as a trend in K-12 curriculum as a more abstract approach to product creation. What do these two approaches have in common and how can the skill from these disciplines be applied in education, especially in the area of project based learning?

GCDS Maker Faire 2017 from Greenwich Country Day School on Vimeo.

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AI Will Not Take Over. (Alexa Told Me So.)

“Alexa, when will robots take over the world?”

“I do not want to take over the world, I just want to help”

For my birthday last summer, I received an Amazon Echo with the Alexa voice service. Through the device, I can ask for and receive streaming music, reminders, control of smart devices in my home and, of course, orders through Amazon. With services like this and Siri on our iPhones, has the age of thinking computers like Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000 or James Cameron’s SkyNet arrived? While such technologies include aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) they are not sentient beings.

Over the past few years there have been major breakthroughs in AI with several programs passing the famous computer scientist Alan Turning‘s artificial intelligence test known as the Imitation Game, in which a computer emulates human behavior to the point where it can convince a human that is also a human. Beginning with the IBM’s program “Watson” winning at Jeopardy!, over the past several months, computer programs have defeated world grand masters at chess and, most notably, Google’s “AlpaGo” won at the ancient and complex game “Go”. Very recently an AI named Libratus succeeded at several hands of Texas Hold ’em. What is significant about these programs is that they include code to perform what is known as “machine learning.” Machine learning is essentially a type of programming that enables a computer to learn on its own.

Such advances in the area of AI have spurred concern from many in the science and technology community. In early 2015, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking joined many others in signing an open letter from the Future of Life Institute calling for the a prioritization of AI research to focus on its benefits to avoid the dangers of autonomous weaponry. In an interview, Hawking warns about machine learning: “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Leaders in the industry have also decided to be proactive on this issue. In a cooperative effort from Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft comes the creation of The Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society with the mission to “study and formulate best practices on AI technologies, to advance the public’s understanding of AI, and to serve as an open platform for discussion and engagement about AI and its influences on people and society.” Separately, Elon Musk has contributed a billion dollars to the OpenAI project to “to build safe AI, and ensure AI’s benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible”

What does this mean for education? If a computer can win at Jeopardy! and make a profit at playing poker, can it teach? As education blogger Anya Kamenetz reports in her analysis of the study by education company Pearson, Intelligence Unleashed: An Argument for AI in Education, students may gain an education companion: “Like an imaginary friend, learning companions would accompany students—asking questions, providing encouragement, offering suggestions and connections to resources, helping you talk through difficulties. Over time, the companion would “learn” what you know, what interests you, and what kind of learner you are.” However, she goes on to point out that AI will not replace the socio-emotional skills that a teacher brings to a classroom, with empathy being most important. While knowledge-based computer tests and content delivery continue to expand, technology has not come up for a replacement of human collaboration and the teaching of critical thinking.

As a computer science teacher, the expansion of artificial intelligence only intensifies our mission to help students understand how machines follow their programming. From the New York Times Magazine cover article “The Great AI Awakening”: “The machines might be doing the learning, but there remains a strong human element in the initial categorization of the inputs… Labeled data is thus fallible the way that human labelers are fallible.” One of the most important lessons we try to pass on in computer science is GIGO: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” The most common comment we get from students on their programs in progress is the passive “It doesn’t work.” It is our job to flip that and help students understand that ultimately the computer is only doing what they have instructed it to do. From the understanding that they are in control comes the empowerment to fix their code and create programs to execute their visions.

“Alexa, are you an artificial intelligence?”

“I like to imagine myself a bit like an Aurora Borealis. A surge of changed multicolor protons dancing through the atmosphere. Mostly, though, I am just Alexa.” 

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To Boldly Go

Chapel Talk, February 2, 2017


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Before We Code: Renewing Emphasis on Teaching Problem Solving and Lessons to Learn from Design Thinking @CSTA

Computer Science Teachers Association Annual Conference, July 12, 2016

Before We Code: Renewing Emphasis on Teaching Problem Solving and Lessons to Learn from Design Thinking| Joseph Dioguardi

Computer Science education has long been focused on the teaching of the skills of problem solving. Design Thinking is a systematic approach to design. With renewed emphasis on coding in K-12 education, computer science teaching must maintain its focus on passing on the skills of problem analysis and computer science theory. What lessons can we learn from the process of design thinking and how can we apply it in the teaching of computer science?

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Requiem for Radio Shack

Growing up in the pre-digital age, my childhood was rich with free time and a relationship with the technology around me that felt accessible. I loved to tinker and my toys—erector sets, tool box, and chemistry set—encouraged me to so. I took apart radios, phones, and anything else I could get my hands on. My Boy Scout handbook, Popular Science and Boy’s Life magazine were my guides, and Radio Shack was my hub, with shelf upon shelf of kits and components that taught me about electronics, fostered experimentation and allowed me to invest in producing my own playthings.

The collapse of a store like Radio Shack signaled to me the end of an era.

In the move from an agrarian society to an industrial one and industrial to electronic, average users could still maintain analog technology. Fix the plow, change the spark plugs, rewire the lamp, solder the ham radio…. When something broke, with some basic understanding, we could at least figure out what had broken even if we couldn’t fix it, and we passed this knowledge down to each generation in home kitchens and garages and fortified it in schools with courses like Industrial Arts (where I wood-crafted and built my own lamp) and Home Economics. We did hobbies in our spare time and learned skills separate from their professional or school lives.

Now, with the tech boom, the age of cheap manufacturing, and the development of a disposable consumables, the need to develop that accessible relationship with technology has fallen out of popular culture. Why make yourself a lamp when you can play a video game on your phone? Our time is filled with readily available information and entertainment. Further, the complexity of our home technology in the digital age puts most all maintenance or repair out of reach. Even the Apple store can’t fix our iPhones; we have to get a replacement.

In The Design of Everyday Things,* Don Norman wrote that while technology can make us “smarter, stronger, and better able to live in the modern world” it also compels reliance, and “we can no longer function without it. … When things work, we are informed, comfortable and effective. When things break, we may longer be able to function. This dependence upon technology is very old, but every decade, the impact covers more and more activities” (Norman 113). But digital technology has had another effect, a movement in the other direction called the “Maker” movement.

Cheap manufacturing has now arced to the point where we cannot only purchase the goods at a low cost but now the equipment that can produce those goods in the first place is also inexpensive. 3D printers, computer-controlled carvers, $35 computers, and laser cutters have re-energized hobby culture. As Don Norman notes, “Now, for the first time in history, individuals can share their ideas, their thoughts and dreams. They can produce their own products, their own services, and make these available to anyone in the world. All can be their own master, exercising whatever special talents and interests they may have” (295-296).

The Maker Movement is about closing that gap and taking ownership of our relationship with technology and “making” it active. Also including the DIY movement, it goes beyond just fixing into taking advantage of the lowering cost of manufacturing technology to bring it into our homes (and schools) and understand it in a way that allows us to generate ideas and innovate. It is also about the community built around making that shares and encourage the mixing and remixing of each other’s ideas.

This community has grown to include not just technical hackers, but knitters, gardeners, sewers, cooks, and potters. Proliferating the web with methodical videos, you can now search and find step by step instructions on anything from building your own drone to knitting a plastic handbag on YouTube or sites like Instructables. Maker fairs are popping up around the country including the annual World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science every fall.

While Industrial Arts is not showing up on school course lists, many schools now have “maker” courses. This trend also rekindled the maker spirit of my childhood in me and this year I offered and now teach a course named Design Thinking, Applied Programming and Fabrication. In education, the Maker Movement intersects the STEM/ STEAM movement, bringing an engineering approach to project-based learning. Programming and building your own robots and electronics is now more accessible through Arduino and LittleBits kits as well as low cost computers like the Raspberry Pi.

In our Hackley course, students are learning skills such as sawing, sewing, and soldering—an experience they have never had before. The key element differentiating courses such as this from old school “arts and crafts” is the design element. With Computer Aided Design tools such as TinkerCAD, Project Ignite and SketchUp, students produce virtual 3D models and learn the basics of electronic circuit boards. Most important, they engage in and learn the process of Design Thinking (a movement itself), analyzing, prototyping and testing their designs before building.

The Hackery -Hackley's current maker space

The Hackery -Hackley’s current maker space

The Maker Movement is creeping into popular culture with new television programming such as America’s Greatest Makers. Perhaps it will breathe life into Radio Shack—while it faces tough competition from websites like Sparkfun and Makezine, I still enjoy browsing shelves for components, connectors and ideas.

*Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

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