LEGO® Wall Mania

Makerspaces are becoming more prevalent in our educational settings these days. Kevin Mowat shared with me Diana Rendina‘s current definition of a makerspace:

A makerspace is a place where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore and discover using a variety of tools and materials.

A great definition to be sure. The scope of the “place” is the issue for me, as it is for my colleagues as well. Schools shouldn’t just have A makerspace… Schools should BE a makerspace!  It’s more about mindset of the teaching staff!

The reality may be quite different. Schools are creating “places” of smaller scope; more centralized spaces that contain both resources  (consumables & permanent/ loanable items) and personnel that can be “borrowed”  for periods of time. The space itself can also be booked. Teachers and classes are trying out equipment and pedagogies that are more innovative, inquiry-, design-focused and challenged-based as well. This doesn’t mean that a makerspace mindset isn’t in place, just that it may only be present locationally or situationally.

But this makes sense initially. One space centralizes the materials and personnel, lowers the initial outlay of expenditures, decreases the amount of potential reconstruction within the building, lowers the stress of teachers as they learn to approach a new mindset and new tools and so on.

However, it can also “fix” the mindset of the a location-based makerspace into that space in similar fashion to the computer lab. The learning takes place at that location exclusively or primarily.


So what does all this have to do with the topic at hand? How does this connect with mounted, vertical Lego walls? Good questions…

One of the big ticket items that is often requested is a vertical Lego wall. Here are some of the often cited reasons for having such a wall:

  • Lego provides tools that develop lateral thinking in a fun environment
  • It teaches kids to think in three dimensions
  • It improves literacy as kids work with instructions
  • It develops problem-solving, organization, and planning by construction
  • It improves creativity
  • It enhances communication and critical thinking
  • It boosts kids motor development.

There is no dispute with the positive impact that working with Lego can have whether that happens to be on a horizontal or vertical plane. So let’s move forward with that assumption intact.

The issue for me with this item is configuration… Vertical, horizontal or modular. In my mind, it should be an obvious choice, but apparently it’s not. In many cases, I hear about initial requests for vertical, wall-mounted LEGO walls.

As I began looking into what  options there were for these kind of installations, I took a quick trip over to Google to do some searches. I tried “LEGO – makerspace – Pinterest” (not even LEGO WALL mind you) and an amazing number of VERTICALLY oriented wall-mounted LEGO boards were returned in the search.

Google Search Results - LEGO Makerspace Pinterest
Google Search Results – LEGO Makerspace Pinterest

It’s no wonder people want them in their rooms mounted in this fashion. It seems to be the status quo. Might even make sense, at first blush! They take up less space, promote art-like, isometric creations similar to those in the Minecraft environment (a popular creation/game) and still maintain the advantages of LEGO mentioned above. We’ve even modelled this type of installation in our Innovation Office.

But this installation bothers me greatly and for the same reasons that  wall-mounted Smartboards and projectors do (I wrote a post about this months ago). To explain why, I need to go over two concepts:

Let’s go back to the definition for maker spaces kindly provided by Kevin Mowat earlier:

A makerspace is a place where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore and discover using a variety of tools and materials.

Simple. Students need the tools & materials to explore and discover concepts at their fingertips wherever that may be.

Let’s further add to that the notion of mobile learning:

Mobile learning  is education via networks (Internet as well) using personal/provided mobile technologies, such as tablets & smartphones to support their learning through mobile apps, social interactions and online educational hubs through which they can leverage information sources. It is flexible, allowing students access to education anywhere, anytime.

Simple as well. Anytime, anywhere learning.

What are the ramification of two such ideas? Mark Osborne discusses multiple ways in which a school’s and classroom’s environment impacts learning (up to 16%, as much impact as many teachers): lighting, sound, workflow, spacing, spaces for focused , collaborative and dynamic learning – all play a factor in the creating a place that “embraces the makespace” mindset. What is required is a flexible learning environment.

When a LEGO wall is mounted or a projector is mounted, that “fixes” that space as either the “LEGO place” or the “front of the room”. That can’t be changed easily.

Fixed spaces are not aligned with the notion of either a makerspace, or a mobile learning environment.


So what to do…

As far as the LEGO Board or WALL is concerned, happily there are many options. I will outline a few here and you can let your mind go with possibilities. But keep this in mind, for any creative, makerspace keep things flexible and modular.

The LEGO Shop sells the LEGO Base Plates in multiple sizes and colours, so once these two decisions have been made you can begin to determine the dimensions of the “wall” that will be created. With nine green, 32cm x 32cm board (10″ x 10″) base plates, a modular 9 piece, almost 3′ x 3′ board space could be created. This could service 9 individuals or 9 pairs of students with using the modular individual base plates or on the combined LEGO wall many students.

LEGO Green Base Plate
LEGO Green Base Plate

Mounting each base plate on it’s own wooden backing keeps the LEGO wall modular. This is important as classrooms are mobile learning environments and this modular configuration allows teachers to group their LEGO tinkering students in flexible groups or individuals depending on needs. It also allows for projects like “whole to part or part to whole art creation”; where each student is given part of a larger image to create/copy, only seeing the whole when all the pieces are combined.

Piece by Piece Art
Piece by Piece Art
Modular LEGO Base Plate Configurations
Modular LEGO Base Plate Configurations

The trick now is how to combine these modules in a secure enough manner that they can be lifted vertically. The image below makes a number of suggestions about how this might be accomplished. The most reliable is creating a box that fits the modular pieces snuggly. Pins could be used to secure the pieces as they are placed into the box. Then this box can be place on an old Smartboard stand or Flip chart stand.

But other ideas abound, as the diagram points  out.

Alternate LEGO "Wall" Configurations
Alternate LEGO “Wall” Configurations

What’s important to remember when considering anything for a mobile learning or makerspace environment is to consider being flexible. Flexible for the students, respectful of the fact that learning happens in unexpected locations and in unexpected ways, and cognizant that fixing things permanently to the walls of a classroom can sometimes “fix” the room in ways that yield unexpected results for the learners that the environments are being created to support.


Just found this article on ScoopIt! this morning. Thought it might provide some other options as well. Keep in mind the notions of mobile learning and flexible spaces though.

Moving Beyond Lego Walls:

Moving Beyond Lego Walls

Computational Thinking Revisited

Computational Thinking
Computational Thinking

I have been thinking more about what the important steps embedded in the process of programming… There are really two cycles within the process: one that follows a design or inquiry-like sequence & one that addresses computational thinking. I have tweaked this model over and over and have done so again below to show where I think the computational thinking fits in.

Blended Processes: Computational & Design Thinking
Blended Processes: Computational & Design Thinking

It’s fascinating to watch students tackle this head on. I was at Wellington School the other day working on a coding and I was amazed on a number of fronts:

Wellington Students
Wellington Students Coding; Posted with permission
  • Students were unfazed by the coding challenges put in front of them: the challenges were hard but the students were highly motivated to solve them
  • Students struggled initially with establishing social sharing of the tools: needed to provide some strategies here
  • They successfully collaborated in their teams
  • They creatively collaborated across teams
  • The focussed completely on the coding problem & trying to solve it
  • It didn’t matter that Math, Science & ELA outcomes, strategies & content were being dealt with in order to solve the coding problem at hand: students shifted between these areas with ease. The blended nature of the content was authentic and natural to the students
  • Students were creative in their solutions to the coding problems that were being solved
4 Cs: Above & Beyond
Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking , Creativity

What stands out is that with little help the students were practicing the 4Cs meaningfully across content areas. This reaffirms that coding can be curricular glue, but more than that, it allows for students to engage in two authentic and worthy processes: inquiry/design & computational thinking.

Are Smartboards Still Smart?

Smartboards Vs iPads
Smartboards VS iPads

I have been having some interesting conversations with distressed schools regarding Smartboards, Epson short-throw projectors – their high costs, the amount of training or lack of training associated with these devices, and whether they still the “smart” way of doing business.

These are loaded questions from the “get-go” because they make a number of assumptions that we in Educational Technology and the Innovation realms have been striving to address for years:

  • The adage “learning first/technology second” shouldn’t be just an adage!!
  • Devices don’t improve educational outcomes as a general rule
  • Best teaching and learning practices DO improve educational outcomes
  • In an age of fiscal responsibility, we need to be sure that the technology we DO purchase addresses the needs of students and fits with what we consider are solid teacher and learning practices.

It concerns me when I hear of expenditures based on grants secured or monies raised with little consultations regarding trends, best practices and the needs of learners in general. And this brings me to the main point of the post… Are Smartboards still smart?

The answer is it depends. It depends on how they are being used. I am going to dust of the the SAMR continuum again to demonstrate how Smartboards or EPSON Interactive short-throws MIGHT (and this is a rather important qualifier) be used effectively. The real issue with these devices, large and small, are that they are essentially single or double touch devices. Now before the masses jump on my back and say there are “multi-touch” devices available, ask yourself how many of these are actually in service in your District? I know in our Division, this number is VERY small – most are single touch, large screen, wall mounted Smartboards! We also have a growing number of wall-mounted short-throw Epson Interactive Dual Touch projectors.

So we have a large expenditure, a great deal of fuss setting up, lots of time creating notebooks for essentially a one-at-a-time student experience, however that happens to be structured. I have seen this occur in a number of ways in descending order of popularity:

  • Large group presentation and lecture; primarily used by teacher
  • Large group centre(s); calendar and day startup routines in primary
  • Digital worksheets or activities
  • Centre work
  • Small group work

Recreated SAMR Model/Continuum
Blended SAMR Model/Continuum (KS)

4 Cs: Above & Beyond
Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking , Creativity

If we recall the SAMR continuum and the 4Cs model briefly from some earlier posts and we apply it to Smartboards and Epson Interactive Projectors we essentially arrive at the same conclusion… The teacher & students have a bit of careful thinking and planning to do BEFORE they embark on deciding how best to use these types of devices. Otherwise there is the real danger of a lot of money having been spent on a very large & glossy projection tool for the teacher to show YouTube videos on.

It is not that these tools cannot be used in a way that is collaborative, or creative, or for communication, or critical thinking or in ways that transform learning. They can!

So why is the default to use the substitution level, focusing on lower level thinking skills, essentially addressing the needs of single students? Ease? Time? Lack of training? I am not really sure. But the issue is that teachers seem to regularly rely on Enhancing experiences with technology with little consideration to student input or outcomes achieved.

Let’s look at how this could be changed. The fact of the matter is that Smartboards and Epson Interactive Projectors are expensive tools that allow for a variety of educational experiences to be provided for learners in a classroom. These devices aren’t being leveraged to their full abilities, and truth be told, there are a number of competing tools that are coming on the market that may in fact soon provide a viable and attractive replacement for these devices supporting learners in ways that were previously unavailable… More on that later in the post.

Here’s one person’s take on how a Smartboard could be taken advantage of more fully:

SAMR & SMARTBOARDS
SAMR & SMARTBOARDS

What’s clear is that Smartboards should be looked at as part of an ongoing learning process rather than as as a digital worksheet to be completed. For example, suggestions such as digital portfolios, or storyboard creation during a video or story writing process, part of a design or brainstorming or webbing process are outlined above. Teachers could use these device in small, needs-based groups as a manipulative for collaborative purposes – a few would work through a series of pointed learning problems. Both of these ideas redefine how a Smartboard could be typically used, and demonstrates a move away from the teacher presentation tool model or the digital worksheet for the whole class model typically selected.

What is also clear is that students will need to be involved in this process. We value Assessment for Learning: releasing responsibility to the learner, activating students as the owners of their own learning, encouraging learners to be instructional learners for each other, clarifying Task, Intent and Criteria and the like… are all part of this picture as well. Involving students in both the learning, collaboration/communication, creation, & critical thinking pieces of the learning supported buy the tools at hand (Smartboard, Notebook, websites etc…) is as important as the decision to change how you go about using the tool in the first place.

Five Critical Elements of Assessment
Five Critical Elements of Assessment

I recently did an inservice where I was helping teacher locate sites that they could use with their EPSON Interactive Projector. Their issue was that the school hadn’t paid the Smart Notebook licence subscription fee to use Smart Notebook with their Epson Projector. Therefore all of the Smart Notebooks they had created could n to be used. They were looking for other options… I created a Symbaloo of possibilities – but a caution here!! A teacher and her students really must plan for how the tool will fit in the outcomes. The learning MUST come first, the tools to support come second.


This brings me to some new thinking. For about the same cost of a mounted projector/smartboard combination or an Epson Interactive Projector one might consider a 40 inch HD TV, Media Streamer & 3–4 iPads minis. What’s the advantage? There are many actually:

  • The TV is almost a big as a small Smartboard and has better resolution
  • TV is very portable and doesn’t require mounting to a wall
  • Cheaper to repair or fix TV
  • 3–4 students can touch the iPads at the same time; double that if you work in collaborative pairs
  • iPads can be repurposed for many other activities
  • iPads can function as portable document cameras/ or simply as cameras/video cameras
  • All material from all iPads can be streamed to the TV at the same time and be recorded

These are only a few of the positive advantages for roughly the same costs. These are things that the Smartboard and Epson cannot do.

For those of you who are really stuck on using an app like Notebook there is Explain Everything Collaborative Whiteboard for iPad It provides real-time collaboration, allowing users to work simultaneously on the same project from multiple devices while using all the design, recording, and export features of the interactive whiteboard. This functionality, of course, comes at a subscription cost, but they seem reasonable.


Let’s wrap this up:

Bart Simpson Leveraging the Power of Smart Boards for no goodBart Simpson Leveraging the Power of Smart Boards for no good

Smartboards and similar devices may not be as smart as they use to be, and there are certainly better options available today, but I don’t think one needs to abandon ship just yet. That said, if you are ready to look at replacing an interactive projector, or a Smartboard it might be a good idea to explore some of the other options that exist and see how they fit into the current workflows, or current practices before making any final decisions.