don't succeed

Why kids love Scratch: It lets them fail in a way their parents don’t

May 15, 2014
May 15, 2014

The “one size fits all” approach is what I find most frustrating about schools today. It gives children so few opportunities to individualize their learning. So no building a Lego sculpture or composing a song to show comprehension of a reading passage. Just fill in the blank with the most expected answer and move on.

No wonder then that a computer program called Scratch—a programming language developed in the MIT Media Lab that lets children make up stories, games, and animation—is taking off. It allows kids to experiment and fail in a way their teachers and parents just cannot afford to allow.

In fact, with Scratch, “it’s excellent to fail,” notes research scientist, Dr. Wendy Martin of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center.

Martin and her colleague, research associate Francisco Cervantes, evaluated the benefits of Scratch being taught in schools and worked closely with MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group to identify the specific skills that students would gain. Until then, Scratch had been primarily used in afterschool centers and independently by families to provide their children with extra programming experience.

Scratch beyond the surface: Where science meets art

There’s a coding craze across the country. The New York Times made it official a few days ago with a story describing a “national educational movement in computer coding instruction that is growing at Internet speeds.”

But it’s not just about guaranteeing job security.  Perhaps Scratch gives kids an outlet they are not getting at home or at school. Indeed, Cervantes and Martin found Scratch to be very beneficial for children as it allowed them to practice computational thinking. Martin explains the term: “It’s kind of like logical thinking but also creative at the same time.” While it’s puzzling to be both logical and creative, in the world of Scratch, the two are inseparable.

In the classroom, typically, the focus is on a finished product. However, the idea behind Scratch is to build something in a step-by-step fashion, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, you fix it. Here is an animation I made using Scratch:

capture for quartzy the crab

Fixing something the Scratch way is special because it is considered to be a visual object-oriented programming language. This means that codes can be created by putting blocks of specific actions together instead of text. “You don’t have to worry about forgetting a comma, forgetting a bracket, or closing a bracket which other programming languages do have,” Cervantes says.

Here is what that code looks like:

Capture1

That makes the creative process much more fluid for children. Likewise, if they run into problems, children can easily go back, take apart their blocks of code, and analyze their program in a systematic way.  To Martin, the practice of problem-solving is key because what children will be learning most is how to identify a problem. “This is having the kids using practices that a programmer does,” she added. Kids don’t throw out their project and start over. Instead, they can just go back and fix it.

Creative juices

To me, Martin appeared to be describing the exact point where the world of science meets the world of art. As a parent, I want my child to be familiar with that point which is why many parents of 5- to 7-year-olds, including me, are anxiously anticipating ScratchJr, an even easier form of coding. Less than two weeks ago, ScratchJr tripled its Kickstarter goal of $25,000. (ScratchJr is a collaboration between the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, and the Playful Invention Company.)

The board game industry is also getting in on coding.  Preschooler game, Robot Turtles, available for pre-order at ThinkFun, is said to be the most backed board game in Kickstarter history. Developmental psychologist and play consultant Jennie Ito of the Play Kitchen says even she pre-ordered the game for her family because she felt programming was important for children. “It teaches children that they can be creators,” she says. “That they can not only have an idea, they can actually turn their idea into something.”

In Scratch, creating is contributing

To be sure, creating, building, and redesigning are traits not unique to only Scratch. What really sets its apart though is the Scratch community and the culture it has created.  There is so much respect for Scratch that reusing or remixing someone’s work is more of a hat tip than an act of copying. “There is a larger thing that you are a part of and that you’re able to contribute but also recognize,” notes Cervantes. The current culture of this community of learners appears to have de-emphasized failure by putting the focus on creating and sharing.

Within the Scratch community, sharing creations is very encouraged. This enables students for even more self-directed learning as students can view others’ work and if the program is doing something new to them, they can access the code to figure out how they can apply it to their own work.  The same method can be helpful for problem-solving too.

Very low floors and very high ceilings

With all that Scratch has to offer, it seems that at the very least, it can compete for a slot on a child’s afterschool schedule.  Another big difference for Scratch: It is free. Cello lessons and Mandarin classes are not. Children, even less privileged ones, would be free to explore beyond the classroom on their own time.

Thus, Cervantes says Scratch has “low floors and high ceilings.” He said, “It has a very low entry point to get started with scratch. It is free across platforms and you can even run it on your browser.”  Users understand that the possibilities to create something very complex also exist.

Risks are rewarding

After working closely with schools, Martin concluded that children were motivated to make complex creations and that they had grand visions. Notably, kids who weren’t usually successful in an academic setting would often take to Scratch. Teacher feedback pointed to those kids’ willingness to make mistakes. “A lot of kids who frequently do well in school often want to know all the answers,” she says. “Scratch wasn’t always fun for them because there is no answer and there is no end.”

What makes Scratch so desirable for the school setting is it is a program where kids naturally relate their experiences to overcome a problem. Cervantes met with hundreds of children in grades 3 to 12 and asked each what they were most proud of after having learned Scratch. “It was very common for them to tell me: ‘Well I got stuck here. I was trying to do this and this went wrong and I really like that I was able to fix it.’”

Jenn’s blog is Toys are Tools. Follow her on Twitter @toysaretools. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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