Archive for August, 2008

14th August
written by Tom Banaszewski

My return to Boston this summer was primarily to see my family and friends. Second fiddle was the Scratch conference held at MIT. I love conferences during the summer. Teachers rarely turn their brains off completely from thinking of school, but during July and August you’re removed far enough from your daily routines to think about school in a different way. Today was Day 1 of a gathering of people around the world who are using the free Scratch software developed by MIT. This year, I used this program with an after-school group of students interested in learning how to make video games. We didn’t get very far into the program. I made the mistake of introducing it alongside other free game-making programs. The students were drawn more to the web-based Flash games. I had had plans to develop a whole course to teach video game creation through Scratch, but when the number of students dropped to 3 it lost its priority. This conference, though, has recharged my interest and I’m looking forward to pitching several ideas from this conference to my staff.

The key question for most teachers at the conference was how do I introduce Scratch to students and teachers? For me, the question had more to do with scaffolding the introduction of more complex coding concepts; moving students and teachers beyond the basics of what looks like something made with Powerpoint. The ready-to-use Scratch cards are perfect for getting the basics down. And the site has some of the best sequenced lessons for teachers and students to work through. I think to get at more complex chunks of code, students could be presented with remixing challenges where they need to take someone else’s Scratch project and manipulate the speed of a object on the screen. With this approach, you’re asking students to deconstruct a Scratch project made by another student. This is where the scaffolding can work well. After students have solved one challenge, you introduce more challenges like adding speech bubbles, collision detection and loops.

Another strategy, I’ll try is using themed Scratch projects to hook particular students and teachers. There’s a huge number of anime projects on the Scratch website. The math and science concepts are growing but I haven’t found many that do more than regurgitate information from a text book. Several presenters talked about using role-play to help students think through the code of their project. With a few students on stage, they would physically walk-through the code instructions behaving as if they were the objects on the screen. Audience members could also provide feed-back on solving particular challenges, such as how to create collision detection between two objects. This approach was a welcomed surprise to how I’ve seen programming taught in the past. Using creative movement to help students physically understand how if-then procedures work will appeal to many students.

I was really impressed with how much true constructivist and constructionist learning I heard discussed at this conference. For years, I’ve been on the fence about constructionist learning. My biggest qualm has been that it just doesn’t fit with traditional test-driven classrooms. And that’s exactly what Seymour Papert and Mitch Resnick responded to with their creation of tools like LOGO and Scratch to allow students to "imagine, create, play, share, experiment, and reflect." That might not be the exact cycle, but you get the idea. During the session on the ScratchEd site that’s meant to serve the needs of educators using Scratch, I heard many teachers trying to map the entrenched school model onto Scratch, asking for resources to help use Scratch to teach their curriculum. I was one of them. I wish there were schools with a Media Lab type approach to learning. Places where students were truly encouraged to use their personal interest in a subject to guide their learning. I know this sounds like Montessori education, but constructionist learning theory is different. It’s hard to document. I’ll come back to it in a later post. Mitch’s enthusiasm for creativity in education made me feel like I wasn’t necessarily at an edu-tech conference. It was a gathering of people who believed in students and their ability to create, collaborate and demonstrate an amazing range of, sorry I can’t avoid using it, 21st century skills.

A presenter used the term "safe failure" in his talk, the idea that Scratch provided opportunities for students to set out to build something and totally fall flat on their faces and not have any negative consequences attached to it. There may be some self-imposed ones, but those too are important. Schools have utterly failed at equipping students with basic problem-solving skills. I think this is largely due to the infrequency of these safe failure moments in academic settings.

Many sessions featured Scratch use for making video games, both with educational and entertainment goals. What I noticed in nearly all the presentations is the absence of any specific video-game teaching. This is a huge field and lots has been written about game design for teens. Maybe direct teaching is in conflict with constructionism. That’s what I’ve never been able to resolve. The balance between assessing what skills the teacher needs to provide to the student and what you think is developmentally appropriate for them to discover on their own, that’s the real challenge. There’s a course that Bernie Dodge teaches where he has the teachers design board games and introduces the fundamentals of engaging games. I’ll try a modified version of this with students this year. Creating a good game is hard. Why reinvent the wheel. Have students use games that already work, but just change the content to fit your needs. This I know is the complete opposite of constructionism, but I feel it’s an important step before asking a student to create a game that’s meant to teach or make a point. I found this book during a lunch break that really helps non-game designers understand the challenges behind making an engaging game.

This is similar to the main challenge I find in helping students create effective digital stories. You need to teach them how to do it. Why not give them stories and ask them to find the images that match the script, making changes along the way to add their unique voice to the story. I plan to use this scaffolding approach often this year for most projects that require students to create any kind of interactive multimedia project.

There was also a lot of talk at the conference about using Scratch to create and share stories among students in various countries around the world. The Scratch website makes the sharing part easy. I’ll be watching to see how people interpret "story" and look for opportunities to incorporate digital storytelling practices. I’ll be sure to include Scratch in my presentation on current approaches to digital storytelling at the Asian Digital Storytelling Festival in September.