Brief Thoughts On Scratch

Previously, I’ve lambasted the children’s programming language Scratch for its cockpit’s worth of controls.  This encourages its users to try anything and see what works, rather than plan, predict, and understand exactly what each piece of code is doing. It’s instant gratification … and a tight feedback loop.

Scratch is not a tool to learn programming or metacognition; Scratch is a tool to create artistic displays that could not otherwise be created (by children). Scratch thus allows children to explore ideas not related to mathematics or programming. They have creative freedom, much like art class. And what elementary schooler produces anything particularly good, objectively speaking, in art class? So don’t judge the Scratch projects too harshly.

Scratch is a social platform, except that the socialization happens in real life. Get a few kids in a room using it, and they’ll share both creations and code,  motivate each other, and change goals on the fly. This differs from more mature programming, where one has a specific goal in mind. The other key difference is that most languages discourage straight up experimentation; one have to know what one is doing in order to do it. Scratch reverses this: a kid can learn what a command does through using it. This is because all the commands are displayed, ready to be used.

Not only displayed, but also labelled, unlike the Khan Academy programming language that drops down four numbers with no context. It’s a way to slyly introduce relative and absolute motion – move up by, move to – in a way that lets kids work out the rules. No, they won’t work out all the rules, but I think they’ll come to fewer incorrect conclusions (misconceptions) in a reactive medium than with marks on paper. They will figure it out later, much later.

Scratch is a way to put Lego bricks into the bucket. The kid will reassemble them into many different knowledge structures over the years before creating something strong and beautiful – an educated mind. It’s during that process, that struggle, that they can learn to program with planning and expressiveness, rather than tacking on bricks ad-hoc. It’s a stage everyone goes through, and Scratch can help a child make the most of it. But don’t confuse acquiring bricks with figuring out how to assemble them.

This isn’t to say that Scratch as it exists is perfect; far from it. We need to keep rethinking what tools are best to give to our children (and adults, for that matter). But I’m backing off my previous stance that guided minimalism is the answer. (Or is my new “wait and let them figure it out” view too fatalist?)

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