Learning From Scratch
A user-friendly design and programming language has gone viral, with help from some advocates at TC
By Suzanne Guillette
News flash: Boredom: Yet Another [Ridiculous] Animation, a video narrative about a stuffed animal who plays with yo-yos and offers wry commentary on Kant’s theories of moral action, was viewed by more than 50 people during the first 12 hours after its author, Cheddargirl, posted it last summer.
“Nice animating—that dancing was really good :D.” wrote Jonathanpb of New Zealand.
Welcome to the world of Scratch, a design and programming language that enables creative spirits such as Cheddargirl to create and discuss interactive stories, games, music and art. Released in 2007 by MIT Media Lab, Scratch has attracted more than 1 million registered users who have generated more than 2.5 million unique projects.
“Scratch enables people of all ages and backgrounds to meet on common ground,” says TC doctoral student Cameron Fadjo, Research Associate with the College’s Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT), who has been researching the use of Scratch in the classroom. “The beauty of Scratch is that it is not exclusively confined to programmers or designers. It breaks down barriers to learning computing by creating opportunities for anyone to create and share their work.”
Scratch derives its name from the technique of DJs who create music by spinning records on phonograph turntables. Like that practice, the Scratch environment enables users to work without knowing the medium’s syntax. Instead, Scratchers employ a system of graphical blocks, each representing a different animation element (for example, “play sound”) that can be used in a nearly endless number of combinations. Scratchers program by dragging together these blocks, which resemble puzzle pieces and fit only when they make sense.
This intuitive, visual approach makes Scratch accessible across all ages and cultures. At ILT, Scratch has been a catalyst for exploring the development of video games and visual novels to improve mathematical and computational thinking. Under the direction of John Black, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, and Susan Lowes, ILT’s Director of Research and Evaluation, Fadjo and other students explore how elementary and middle-school students learn abstract concepts and develop problem-solving skills.
Scratchers can meet online to tap the growing Scratch community for creative input. A user can post an idea for an adventure game character—say, a girl who is good at math and speaks eloquently—and get immediate feedback and suggestions for ways to bring her to digital life. Fadjo also notes that Scratch’s design arose in part from the cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget, who believed that children learn by, among other ways, making mistakes, discovering their errors and correcting them. Seymour Papert, an MIT epistemologist and artificial intelligence researcher mentored by Piaget, developed the Logo programming language to help children explore mathematical problems. Papert, in turn, influenced younger computer scientists such as Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, which created Scratch.
Recently Fadjo and Black hosted Resnick and Karen Brennan, also of MIT Media Lab, at the first-ever Scratch Educators Meetup at TC. Some 45 classroom teachers, after-school coordinators, researchers and museum staff gathered for workshops and lectures on how to use Scratch.
“Teachers are taking this tool and applying it as creatively as the Scratchers,” says Fadjo. Meanwhile, Scratch researchers are seeking a better understanding of how learning occurs in informal settings and of how Scratch might increase motivation and engagement.
The response to Cheddargirl’s recent post suggests the answer to that last question is “a lot.”
“Really great art, good animating, great music, even,” wrote Sunrise-Moon, a user in the United States. “If I might point out one problem, though— many of the scenes get a bit repetitive. For example, if the dancing scene had more moves, it’d be funnier. Still, very good animation :D.”