Software Review: Scratch

Guest post by Andrew from Match Next

Last week I wrote about Codecademy, a software that tries to teach basic computer programming skills. We tried it with our students and long story short, it didn’t go so great. It got too hard too quickly for a 4th grader. We’ll come back to it in a couple years. You can read more about it here.

So we tried another program to get our kids exposed to computer coding.

So what is Scratch and how do we rate it?

Scratch is a programming language that lets students create stories, games, and animations without the use of coding language. Kids go through the same creative process that programmers go through (assembling the project piece by piece), but they don’t have the burden of coming up with the line of code required to build the program.

I’d give Scratch a 6 out of 10 as an introductory computer science program for elementary-aged students. It’s better than Codecademy because it gets kids to focus on imagining and building their story/game/animation, rather than worrying about the actual lines of code they need to use.

That being said, Scratch can be tough to use as a classroom tool because there are no objectives or lessons to follow. The program simply provides a blank canvas for students to design and create their stories/games/animations. But it felt like an art class that’s essentially a free drawing period 100% of the time. Our kids ended up just watching videos of other people’s stuff and not really doing much creating of their own because they didn’t understand the fundamental concepts behind the ‘coding’ they were asked to do. We found another program we love called Tynker that walks kids through these concepts step-by-step. I’ll describe it next week.

How Scratch works

Students create projects by snapping together ‘blocks,’ which are the individual pieces of the digital projects. Each block contains a ‘script,’ which is essentially a command for the character or main subject of the student’s project (these characters are called ‘sprites’). E.g., ‘move ten steps’ or ‘meow like a cat.’ Here’s what some of the blocks look like:

Students build command sequences on a ‘project editor,’ which is the canvas students use to lay out and assemble the blocks. Here’s what all this looks like from the student perspective:

Students can choose their sprite, then they need to start building. They choose the blocks from the center of the page as shown above, then drag them over to the project editor on the right. When students drag the sprites over, they need to snap the blocks together like Legos - the snapped blocks are the list of commands for the sprite to follow. Here’s an example:

In my quick list above, I’ve told my sprite to
1. move 10 steps, then
2. make the sound ‘meow’, then
3. make the sound ‘Hmm...’ for 2 seconds, then finally
4. move 5 steps.

Kids can either start their own program from scratch (ha), or edit a copy of somebody else’s premade project.

Problems with the program:

As with most programs I find that I think have promise, I tried it out with a crew of about 5 of our 4th graders. Good thing I did. I first showed them how the Project Editor works, how to choose sprites, assemble blocks, etc. There’s no kid tutorial or anything, it seems like the makers (MIT Media Lab) want you to let kids figure stuff out on their own. So I told my group that they could go ahead and explore the site on their own and make their own projects. Things got dicey pretty fast.

Most of my students went immediately to the videos of other peoples’ projects. There’s an ‘Explore’ page that allows students to see what other people have made and how they assembled the blocks to create those projects. I was completely okay with it at first because I was hoping my kids would find some inspiration for their own projects, but they didn’t. Eventually, I told them that video time was over and they needed to start making things.

They started off exploring the blocks and testing out different combinations, but all of the kids got bored/annoyed within the first half hour because they couldn’t figure out what to do. It didn’t feel like a simple ‘low persistence’ problem. Even kids who I’d rate on the very high end of a ‘gritty’ scale were annoyed. They just didn’t understand the very fundamental concepts behind how the program worked and needed a much more scaffolded experience.

Bottom line - your average 4th grader will probably not do much that’s productive with Scratch without some heavy teaching/guidance by you on the front end. Without doing that, it’s just a candy factory run by kids who don’t know how to turn on the machines.

Luckily I found the program that takes Scratch’s stuff and does that ‘teaching/guidance’ for you. It’s called Tynker and we use it now with good success - I’ll describe it next week.

if you’d like to talk shop: