Tie And Jeans

Hunting Microworlds

One of the most difficult part of reading Mindstorms in 2014 is pacing yourself through the long sections where it seems like Papert is simply explaining LOGO to an audience that has never owned a computer. There’s a natural tendency to skim at these parts. We may not have wound up with the powerful computing future that Papert envisioned, but many of us went to school through the LOGO boom and have taught using Scratch, Turtle Art and MicroWorlds for a decade or more.

This time through, I tired to read those sections more carefully. While the physics Turtle and Geometry Turtle examples were still very familiar, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of a huge collection of other software microworlds.

Prompted in large part by my work with FabLearn, and my own late start with electronics, I’ve been trying to imagine what a true Papertian microworld for EE would look like.

I’ve seen a number of circuit simulation tools used over the years. I remember using Circuit Construction Kit with students in my first tech+teaching job, but there are plenty of others. However, this reread of Mindstorms has overturned my assumed relationship between simulations and Micoroworlds. In my cursory review of simulation tools, I didn’t see anything that offered the richness that Papert asks of “idiosyncratic microworlds.” Simulating circuits requires less physical dexterity, eliminates the cost and hassle of procuring parts, and allow fantastic “point-wise” inspection of elaborate systems. But they all fundamentally present an idealized form of the physical world. When used in context with circuit simulators, the world “simple” refers only to the number and function of individual components, not to the underlying principles that govern the simulation.

Then there’s Redstone.

Redstone is the building material for electrical analogs in Minecraft. I recorded that video in the summer of ’12 (aka ds106 SummerCamp!), and you can hear my apprehension in the first 30 seconds. Here’s this thing that’s kind of like electricity, which means you can build things that are kind of like circuits…. but they’re not real!
I couch my discomfort as teacher-fear, of not wanting to push my students down an “incorrect” path. In reality, that discomfort is coming from the friction between my own hastily and poorly constructed microworld of electronics understanding and the structure/function of the redstone. I didn’t have a deep and nuanced body of EECS knowledge that I was disappointed to see unrepresented in Minecraft. Instead, I had a half dozen beliefs that I had hung into a loose scaffolding, but individual components were flimsy and couldn’t bear my weight.

Does Redstone constitute a learning microworld for electronics? As a brief overview, the Redstone “circuits” offer a purely digital system, where a wires and component can only be powered or unpowered[0]. There’s no analog for voltage or amperage, which means that there’s no equivalent for capacitors, resistors or transistors. Redstone signals propagate in neat 1/10 second hops. In short, there’s a robust system that can produce wonders, but a student who only studies Redstone will fail a 3rd grade multiple choice quiz about electricity.

Papert’s microworlds aren’t judged by the richness or complexity of the objects that can be produced within. It’s lovely that the Geometry turtle can create wonderful art, but the value of the microworld isn’t dependent on whether the learner created the AlHambra or a box house. In a sense, the Papertian value of a microworld comes from how it can evolve in response to the learner.

There’s certainly a thriving world of Minecraft extensions, many of which extend the redstone system or build up alternative signaling/power system within the same blocky world. But the tools used to create those mods are wholly distinct from the in-world construction tools. Minecraft utterly fails the challenge offered by LOGO, LISP, and Squeak, and offers no path from being creating within the game to creating/modifying the game.[0]

The other criteria for evaluating an microwold is how it exposes learners to “powerful ideas” and if those insights/experiences can transfer to other microworlds or other learning domains. This forces me to realize that I’m not sure what the powerful ideas at the heart of “electronics” are! My list looks similar to the Nell’s insights from Castle Turing throughout King Coyote’s realm in Stephenson’s Diamond Age. Complex systems are often simple systems in aggregate. Careful design makes powerful tools from tedious processes. There’s nothing on my list that looks like a learning objective from 6.002.

My stance is that powerful microworlds don’t have to teach Ohm’s Law, but prepare students to seek out and make use of Ohm-like Laws.

[0]Or maybe not! Since the last time I build redstone circuits, Minecraft has added power levels to Redstone, including components that respond to those power levels and direct comparators

[0] There are some confusing edge cases to this. The RaspberyPi edition of Minecraft exposed an early API, with Javascript and Python libraries, so that players could write/run code that would affect the Minecraft world. There’s great examples of this tool bridging the digital/physical divide, making a light switch in Minecraft that triggers a set of LEDs in the real world. Scriptcraft goes a slightly different direction and exposes the Minecraft API to Javascript commands typed directly from the in-game console. Not that the console line is a pleasant text editor, but it does close the loop and allow for modifications to the game system from within the game itself.

Launching Makers: Students

I spent most of my time at NAIS with a great team of Maker-minded educators, each of whom has great stories about the growth and accomplishments of their program.

When I watched the faces of other teachers and school leaders in those conversations, I could see the analytic processes running very close to the surface. They were listening to these (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining stories, but only because we were too stingy or too dense to simply explain how to launch their own #makered program!

After retelling my story from Flint Hill, and listening to Jaymes, Lindsey and Vinnie retell their origin stories, here’s the Cliff Notes for launching a K12 Makers program.

These are the three resources you absolutely [1] need in order to launch a #makered program:, students, faculty, and space. The precise mixture and composition of those components will dictate the starting boundaries and possibly the focus of your program.

Students are the most difficult component. Not because individual students lack interest, but because of how schools limit their options and constrain their choices.

Most K12 schools wrap all student and teacher activities around a carefully managed framework of classes, breaks, passing periods and coverage. From one viewpoint, a school’s primary resource is student hours, and the whole edifice exists to portion out students and move them smoothly from place to place. In the vast schedules that constitute those systems, very few cells are dedicated to “you know … whatever seems cool.”

Student contact hours are often set up as a zero-sum game, where established players (rightly!) view new programs as immediate opponents that could develop into existential threats. New programs don’t bluff their way through the curriculum and schedule gatekeepers with a gameplan of “just start!”

But while most schools have a carefully managed schedule, almost all of them are held together with some kludge. If you’re looking to launch a Makers program “Monday, not someday” then look for these areas. At Flint Hill we started with middle school study hall, a weird schedule-filling block that didn’t serve an academic purpose beyond “kids go here.” This year, we’ve seen great uptake Makerspace use from middle school students who are dismissed at 3p but have to wait for the 3:50p bus routes. Every school is different, but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have some pockets of time where the primary mandate is “have an adult in proximity to kids.” Not only are those times fundamentally unclaimed by the faculty structure, they’re often a real drag for kids as well! Providing a Makerspace alternative to those “holding pen” moments is pure upside for the students and the school.

When you’re looking to launch a K12 Makers program, start with finding a time that students can make. If you can’t find a window for it now, then you’re facing a problem that no capital campaign or architectural design team can solve.

[1] I’m on record as a“just start” absolutist. This list, like any attempt to three-ring binder and package the #makered process, is a compromise from that position. Please imagine that every noun and most adjectives that follow have invisible asterisks, footnotes and disclaimers.

Creating Space for Success

It’s 12:40. There’s maybe 15 minutes left in class. The three closest projects to me are a student laying out measured 2×4’s to cut with a circular saw, another drilling angled holes into some laminated planks for an atatal, and the grisly disassembly DVD changer covers much of the floor. Somewhere outside my cone of vision there are 6 other projects, none of which (thankfully) are using a tool more dangerous than a soldering iron.

I turn around and see two young women, holding an untidy bundle of butcher paper, their project box and a can of spray primer.

One of the weirdest parts of teaching middle school is recognizing the places where your immediate adult presence is a part of the solution and where it’s part (often a large part) of the problem.

Sandy Snively, an incredibly generous and gifted mentor that I did not deserve, believed in the space teachers create by their absence. She taught me all of the best things that ever happened in my math classroom, one of which was to take a long walk, straight out of the classroom, during  tests.

“Is that honor code horse-pockey, or does it mean something?”

Students in her classes created an honor code together in the fall and signed their name to that same pledge on every test. Sandy knew that kids signed other honor codes, in classes where the teacher still prowled through rows of desks during the test, eyes peeled for a forbidden note card or furtive glance. Those honor codes were horse-pocky, and those teachers damaged their students with every circuit.

Adolescents observe their teachers closely to discover the meaning and value of their own actions. Sandy showed me that our students learn how valuable their words and commitments are by how adults respond to them. The prowling teachers told their students that honor codes are just words, a thing you bubble in and forget about, no more binding than a COPPA checkbox. Sandy told students that words matter, that we come together in community with principles above “what can I get away with?” Her faith in her students shone through every time she’d stroll out of the classroom to get a cup of tea, opening a space for their integrity to emerge.

I can see a dark gray mess through the window and hear lower school kids tromping through the halls towards lunch.

“Go. Tape down two feet of paper on all sides of the box, and try to get back in the building before class ends.”

There’s plenty that could go wrong with two 8th graders and a can of spray paint during the middle of the day. But chasing down every possible problem also ensures that I’ll fill up the space that these amazing young people need to discover, make, and thrive on their own.



* Sandy was a salty farm girl to the core, even in her middle school classroom. She never, ever, said horse-pockey.

Kid-focused #makered Integration

I struggle to find ways to integrate my #makered work with other 7/8 classes. If teachers have a prep period, it’s during our elective block. Also, when push comes to shove, I’m not sure the 3×45 minute #makered experience is actually #makered. Not to get all maker-tao on this, but it’s something I worry about.

Instead, this year I’ve taken advantage of the multi-year relationship I have with many of these kids, and have started to lob interesting things at them via email. As the curricular tech guy when they entered middle school, I’m very likely the first person from whom they received an “official school email.” Sometimes I’m sharing choice bits from my #makered links collection. Other times, it’s a particular problem or project that’s active in the space.  Here’s one I sent today to a few of the more puzzle-minded 8th graders.


I made a mistake, and I could use your help.

This will sound like a math problem, but it’s not.  I mean, it’s a problem, and I think that math’s probably my best hope to solve it in a way that doesn’t involve undoing and redoing hours of tedious work. That’s actualy, physical, with my hands work! Ugh.

But importantly, this isn’t a problem from the back of a book. This is something that emerged from a weird combination of design, technology, and cultural habits.  Oh, and mistakes I made.  Because I was in a hurry and didn’t check my work as I was going.

There’s pictures to go with this, but they may not show up “in line” in Gmail.

There’s a clock project in Makers. It’s pretty cool. It will show the hours by turning on individual lights at the end of the little arms.

Photo on 2-18-14 at 2.26 PM

These lights are arranged in a chain, or strip. This is useful for a bunch of reasons, but the most relevant is that you can turn any of them on/off by referring to it’s position in the strip.

There are 12 lights in the strip (because, you know, clock) but they’re numbered from 0 to 11 (because computers).

Photo on 2-18-14 at 2.26 PM #2

Here’s my mistake. Because I was looking at the back side of the clock while building it, I wired the lights so that the order of the strip went around backwards. Dumb move on my part, compounded by the fact that I didn’t catch it until I had wired a bunch of other stuff in place.

So now the numbered lights in the strip are arranged around the clock like this.

Photo on 2-18-14 at 2.26 PM #3

This is bad.

The program reads the hour part of time as a integer between 0 and 23. That’s  0<=hours<=23 for those keeping score with interval notation

Can we find a clever way to use math, to create a rule, that maps the integers [0,23] to the integers [0,11] so that the proper light is turned on?

Photo on 2-18-14 at 2.26 PM #6


-mr carle

Video Games in Makers

Apparently I have things to say about video games. This is a course posting to current students in Makers.

I’ve been stewing about the role of video games in Makers for several hours now. I don’t think I’ve been very clear about what my rules are for when video games are an acceptable Makers activity and when they’re not.

This is my attempt to fix that.

Video games can be part of Makers if they represent something that you’re making or have made.

There are lots of ways to make video games.

The obvious, and most ambitious, is to actually MAKE a video game. Write one. Grab art assets. Mod an existing game. Write code. Doing this at ALL is interesting and complicated. Doing this well is a lifetime worth of creative engagement AND involves playing a lot of video games. I heartily support this process in Makers.

You can make STUFF that plays video games. This can involve cosmetic MAKE around the boxes that play video games – from LED mods to full casemods to custom controllers to monstrous franken-system to the pinball machine to MAME cabinets. There are lots of physical things involved in playing video games. Making any of those in class opens the door for a good amount of game playing during “testing”, “research” and “victory laps.”

You can MAKE while just trying to get videogames to work. I recognize that this will sound like “I walked uphill in the snow, both ways” Yorkshiremen griping (look it up), but the core reason the generation who MAKES the games you now play learned most of their computer/programing skills was because the games we wanted to play didn’t work! The frustrated Pooh Bear feeling, of being out of hunny at the bottom of the tree with the beehive, is an incredible motivator. One reason why I like the Raspberry Pi is that you need to DO something to make it into a funtimes-box.

Finally, you can make WITH video games. Combo vids, speed runs (natural or tool-assisted), let’s play, strategy guides… games are craft, art and culture bundled together. Anything you do to contribute back to that cultural landscape is welcome in Makers.

You’ll notice that there’s no space in this list for playing videogames while you’re waiting for a partner to finish a task, or when the soldering iron is being used, or because there’s only 5 minutes left. Games matter. They have a place in Makers when they’re at the heart of what you’re making, not as a stall or dodge.
So what does that look like in class tomorrow?

You could try to get a new game working on the Raspberry Pi. I might suggest this incredible demake of Hexagon for the Commodore 64 emulator –

You could go a step further and fire up the MAME and Atari2600 versions of the 4-player classic Warlords and make a video review that compares them.

Of course, Warlords is meant to be played with paddle controllers.

No one makes paddle controllers anymore, but you can build some.


The last meaningful version of Warlords was made in 1983. Don’t you think the world is ripe for another?

None of this bars the possibility of an occasional MarioKart challenge or BusterBros co-op run. But those moments are rare and, honestly, entirely part of my arbitrary teacher discretion. If you want video games to be a more consistent part of your Makers experience, figure out what you want to make.




Obviously Not a Golfer

How do you walk away from the constant mental churn of a school day?

I find something new to learn.

No, learn is too strong a word. I find a new garden of ideas to walk through, not expecting to replant it or memorize the path. I need to be around new ideas and tools, presented in a way that’s tangible and full of invitation.

Here’s a recent joyous discovery. Start with a simple beep. Through functional programing build up to playing and displaying Canone Alla Quarta. 40 minutes. One text file.

Watching the video is an incredibly journey, and a great break from the day.  When I’m ready to get my hands dirty, start making mistakes and really learning, the source is waiting for me on GitHub.

Spending Out of Pocket

Our Makers program started when I brought personal projects, things that had NOTHING to do with school, into my work environment. Part of what drew kids in from the very beginning was that I, as a teacher, was obviously getting away with something. More than that, it was clear that this mysterious stuff must be something that I cared about, because it didn’t look like any other “teacher stuff” in the building.

Those two responses are tied deeply into how kids view teachers and view school. When we reveal unique parts of a holistic self to students, they notice and respond. This isn’t to say that every kid is going to fall in love with your My Bloody Valentine Pandora station (or any kid!), but any suggestion that your humanity is broader and more complicated than a 6th grade view of teachers has an impact.

I’ve always bought things out of pocket for use in my teaching. My deep procrastination more than covers that habit, but I think I’ve discovered some unexpected value from it over the years. Snap purchases for the classroom, whether a uniquely shaped container of 500 googly eyes, send the complicated message that not only do teachers leave the classroom at some point (5th grade is about the end of the “don’t you sleep under the desk?” mindset), but we carry our students and our classes with us to Home Depot or the swap meet or the beach. Those impulse buys that would NEVER fit on a reimbursement form are a clear signal to kids about how our personality and our teacher identity mesh.

It wouldn’t be the worst use of school money to hand each teacher $100 with this simple instruction. “Buy the awesome things for your kids/space/classroom that you think the school would never understand.”

Essential EdPython – Being Hit On The Head

I did the VAIS presentation today, thanks in large part to the generous loan of a projector from Claire and Michelle, two fantastic #MakerEd pioneers from Highland School. I know how egregious the venue charges for LCD projectors are, but it’s a real mindwarp to walk in to a room and see an honest to god overhead projector set up. I could have made it work if I had the crank-system installed.

After the presentation, a dozen great conversations that were all pressed for time, and four hours in the car, I don’t have a many specific memories from the day.

But I know I used this classic stolen-from-Alfie Kohn bit of EdPython.

Alfie calls this Better Get Used To It, but the phrase I hear in actual use is They’re Going To Need It. I guess the later formulation allows us to absolve ourselves of any guilt. It’s not just that the world (by which we mean school, which we’re in the process of creating and recreating every day) inflicts this horrible thing on young people, and we’re the early messengers. No, if they’re “going to need it” then the implication is that we’ve performed some daring and far reaching reconnaissance, and discovered a surprising hurdle in everyone’s life where this unpleasant and baffling experience will prove invaluable.

We’re very careful to wash out hands of all responsibility in that sentence. It’s college admission boards! It’s the testing companies! It’s our competitor schools! For any rational actor, there would come a point where the costs associated with a certain path became so onerous that alternatives, even less consistent ones, became viable. Never so in schools, where the entire notion of cost and choice evaporate between the actors, and we’re all left bemoaning what students have to do.

Like the Godin quote that Laura linked to yesterday, these arguments deal with avoiding possible consequences that are possibly negative. These are the “if, if” outcomes of which we fear the fear. Third order effects, indeed.

#Makered at VAIS

Tomorrow I’m heading down to Richmond for my first VAIS conference. When we moved from San Jose 5 years ago, I was so flummoxed by Virginia’s geography and traffic patterns that I wrote off any activity further afield than Fairfax. Our horizons expanded steadily over the years, but it’s taken this long to feel like I have something to contribute to the larger conversation of Virginia Independent Schools.

So hi!

I’m Andrew Carle, a long time math and edtech nerd. For the last 5 years I’ve been at Flint Hill School working to build a productive model of teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment. Along the way, though, I fell into something else.

I call the class Makers and refer to it in writing as MakerEd, but those are largely flags of convenience. Classes at our school need to be called something, and when if you’re running a twitter chat (Tuesdays! 9pm!)  #makered has distinct advantages over #Constructionist or #SubjectAgnosticStudentLedInquiry. I recognize, and apologize for this contribution to buzzword-burnout.

I’ll do my best to cover the MakerEd basics in my presentation, but here’s the big picture in some other voices.

I’m not sure I’m qualified to even recite Gary Stager’s  resume. His fantastic keynote from Stanford’s FabLearn conference earlier this month covers the breadth and constructionist roots of MakerEd with more authority than I can muster. If any of this sounds interesting, I can’t recommend Constructing Modern Knowledge enough.

Read more Papert. You can start small with the 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab or 20 Things to Do With A Computer. Bret Victor recommends Mindstorms in language stronger than I can use in public as a teacher. He’s not wrong. The Children’s Machine is also great.

There’s dozens of schools across the country that are embracing a Maker Mindset as a primary goal for their students, and building a whole range of programs and facilities in the process. You can find a subset of those teachers listed at k12makers, but my sense is that 10x that many are starting up and running silent. When you run across those teachers, when you become that teacher, reach out! There’s fantastic teachers from schools of every shape and size pushing at this.

I do my best to write in both the peaks and valleys of my MakerEd experience, and I encourage you to do the same.  What keeps the MakerEd tent broad and focused on new learning experiences for students is conversation among voices that traffic in authenticity, rather than authority. We are educators. Learning environments are what we make, and we need to share widely.

Endless Gallery of Forgotten Toys

Somewhere, a young person does something impressive.

Young people do, build, and make impressive things all the time. What makes this creation special is that, for whatever reason, it manages to pierce the adult bubble of disengagement and draws attention.

In the conversations that ensue, wether in a classroom or on a news program, ad adult will ask this young person “How did you learn to do this?”

There will be “when” and “where” versions as well, but those answers are consistent and unsurprising. After school, late at night, in the garage. On the margins and in the cracks.

Answers to the “how” question are frustrating and incoherent, in the same unsatisfying category as “where do you get your ideas?” Youtube. The google. Books from the library.

If you’re not an educator, I can forgive you for hearing those fumbled responses, filing the kid under “autodidact” and moving on. Both the questioner and the young person are mistakenly focused on the source of this particular impressive thing, rather than the more important “how” of their learning process.

Look back further.

Anywhere, any year, and a young person wants to do something for which they have no direct mentor available. That is, they’re cheeky enough to become fascinated by something in the fast 93% of human experience that’s not addressed in their grade level curriculum map. What do they do? Where do they turn?

In isolation, our only option is to throw ourselves at the cliff face of knowledge, scrabble for a handhold and pull incrementally higher. This is where the myth or misconception of autodidacts fails us, when we imagine that the truly special swoop in like spiderman and bound effortlessly to the summit.


We all careen in wildly, become hopelessly tangled in our own limbs, and smack painfully into the wall. Everyone.

That is learning. There is no montage.

What emerges from that process is an attitude, equally arrogant and egalitarian. If more than one human knows a subject, then instructions exist. If someone else can learn how to do something, then so can I. What we call “the world” is built by people, no smarter than you.

Armed with that attitude and a universe of information, our autodidact Voltron is complete and ready to change the world. This is the point they reflect back on when asked “how” they learned something. Humans are bad at metacognition, and hyper-focused adolescence exponentially more so. When an young person looks back on this moment, she overlooks the long, frustrating hours exploring things that have nothing to do with the subject of her current work. It was those experiences, the painful failure strewn slog of learning how to learn, that provided the mechanism that propelled her to success. Somewhere along the line, she recognized the whole of human knowledge as a personal invitation. The early work where she tested that theory wasn’t impressive, productive or on-task, but it was essential.

Cultivating those experiences is at the heart of what I call #makered. Past the skills or tech or tools or props, I’m convinced that we need to provide a home to the transformative and fanciful passions that may never yield products that impress adults.

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