Beyond teaching programming: Scratch as a constructivist learning environment

This is a guest post is the second in a series (you can read the first post here) and is written by my colleague Sarah Macdonald. In it, Sarah tells about teaching Scratch for the first time to her year 7 girls.

Flashback, 2010
End of year curriculum planning meeting.  Students departed.  Reports written.  Teachers fatigued... and my Head of IT has just announced a major change in the IT curriculum for the following year.  We will be teaching Scratch.  What do I know about Scratch?  I know it’s about programming and primary schools are using it to create endless cartoons about a yellow cat.  Why Scratch?  I realise I have a lot to learn.

Mid year 2011

Parent / teacher interviews.  Picture a hall, set up similar to ‘speed dating’.  But replace hopeful singles with concerned parents on one side of the desk, and well intentioned teachers on the other.  It’s getting late, my 20th parent tonight sits down. Mr Smith introduces himself as a parent of a student in my IT class and asks the questions that many other parents have been asking this year.  Why Scratch?  Why teach my child programming?  How can you expect to teach programming to children?
My answer always refreshes my own belief in why I have come to love teaching Scratch.

I say “Mr Smith, when I first saw Scratch I wondered how many of the students this unit of work would reach.  I mean, even if one student becomes interested in computer programming after this unit, is that enough to teach programming to an entire class?  From a programming point of view, Scratch takes all of the essential constructs like sequencing, conditional branching, control structures, data manipulations and places it in an easy environment, which every student is able to use as simply as using children's building blocks.  What you need to understand, is that Scratch teaches much more than computer programmingScratch is important because it is about teaching students to solve their own problems and getting them to figure things out and discovering how to work things out for themselves.”

When asked about Scratch, students gave many suggestions as to its importance:
“Scratch taught me to fix problems on my own.”
 “it made me be efficient with my time.”
“it taught me that I need to try new things when it didn’t work the first time”
“I took pride in my work, because I had done it all by myself.”
I also explained to Mr Smith that as an English teacher I am always concerned by the plethora of students who seem reluctant to think for themselves.  Those who ‘want the answer’ to their essay question are unable to see English as an exploration of ideas because they are spending far too much time and energy ‘getting the answer right’.  Scratch teaches students that they need to understand their own problems, make mistakes and explore alternatives.  In this way the students are far more active in their learning and they are in charge of finding the solution, not just waiting for the teacher to give them the answer.

I tried to get parents to understand that the role of the teacher should be to facilitate learning in the classroom.  If we focus on giving them tools to discover and problem solve for themselves, students will be far more equipped to take charge of their own learning.  Also when they are ‘in charge’ they are motivated to keep discovering various alternatives and solutions.  This is exactly what Scratch does.  It’s not just about programming.  It’s about having an aim, looking for solutions, attempting them, learning from mistakes and seeking new ways to solve their individual problem.  If students learn to do this through Scratch, they can take those skills to their other curriculum areas, whether it be English, Art, Science or Math.  Problem solving without the focus on the teacher will allow the student to grow as learners.

What I am really getting at is  the importance of Constructivist Teaching in building independent thinkers.  Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction rather than passively receiving information.  Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Constructivist teaching fosters critical thinking and creates motivated and independent thinkers. 

A Constructivist Classroom is a Student-Centered Classroom.  Scratch provides the perfect opportunity for students to take charge of their own learning.  While teaching Scratch, my students would often ask “How do I get my character to do x?”  I would explain that it is up to them to find a solution.  A blank and frustrated look would often follow,  however, students soon learn that they could watch tutorials, read instructions, ask their peers or just have a play and learn from their mistakes.  They would often try a series of alternatives, sometimes taking hours to learn a new programming skill.  At first this would frustrate the students.  They would whinge, begging “just tell me, and I could be finished by now!”  I would then explain that it is the process that I am concerned with, not the final product.  In this way the classroom has moved from teacher-centered, where teachers are the distributor of all things knowledge - to student-centered, where the students learning and discovery is in their own hands.

I must admit, I find it all very exciting.  Langer and Applebee (1), leading educationalists and advocates for the Constructivist Classroom observe that the role of the teacher needs to dramatically change.  They state “a teacher's role in providing information decreases and is replaced by a strengthened role in eliciting and supporting students' own thinking (p. 77) and meaning-making abilities. In a process approach to learning, ideas are allowed to develop in the learner's own mind through a series of related, supportive activities; where taking risks and generating hypotheses are encouraged; and where new skills are learned in supportive instructional contexts.”(Langer and Applebee)  Scratch is the perfect environment to adopt supportive instructional contexts which allow students to take risks and generate their own pathways. To be honest, I was amazed how much I enjoyed stepping away from the front of the classroom and simply watching students search for answers on their own.

Last year, listening to my Head of IT praise Scratch, I believed it would only be of interest and limited benefit to the minority who get a kick out of writing endless lines of script.  However, it is much more than that.  It has shown me that in an optimum environment, students are able to master skills on their own, teach others, learn patience, feel ownership of their achievements  and truly understand what many educationalists are advocating - When we have command over our own learning we are able to digest much more than content, we become skilled in the process and learn how to learn.

(1): Applebee, A.N. (1993). Literature in the secondary school: Studies of curriculum and instruction in the United States. Urbana, Il: National Council of Teachers of English.


Michelle Chung said…
This is so great! Thanks for sharing. Would you be interested in reposting this story on ScratchEd? I think other educators on the site would enjoy reading this. -
ramblingteacher said…
Thank you for the invitation Michelle. I am waiting on a word from the author, Sarah.
mamcardle said…
I loved the fact that Sarah took the time to put in writing what good teachers are trying to do. I have always been of the opinion that as teachers we should always encourage students to actively engage in the classroom by questioning, problem solving and discussing. It is the good teacher who gives students the tools to be able to do just this. To have the confidence to inquire, to have an opinion and to know that discussion and debate is healthy and important. Thanks for sharing Sarah.
Michele McArdle

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