Teaching Scratch by Shaun Austin

Jack Simpson

Head of Marketing and Communications

Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.

This is my second blog on my experiences in teaching programming to children. The first discussed what happened when I went into a primary school to teach some of the basics of Computer Science, such as binary, logic, and cryptology.

IT in education is a big topic in the UK at the moment and has been ever since Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that he wanted to replace the traditional ICT lessons with Computer Science Lessons. This is something I’ve felt strongly about for some time, since my personal memories of learning IT in school are:

  • Enter data in Excel, sum up values.
  • Type letter in Word, maybe do a mail merge.
  • Create a PowerPoint presentation and make text fly in!

The problem is kids nowadays already know how to do that when they leave primary, and often well before. My four year old was using a computer before riding his first bike, and his primary school have recently bought a bunch of iPads (admittedly iPad 2, but let’s not be picky)! The world of apps has opened up in front of our children and they’re inquisitive; now let’s make them capable!

It was all of the above which prompted me to spend our last Genius Day investigating a product called Scratch. I won’t go into much detail about what Scratch is as it’s relatively well established, other than repeating the marketing blurb from the web site:

“Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.”

With the help of two of our designers I produced a simple game as a means of learning the product.  The ‘Genius’ behind our idea (<rant>although the judging panel at the time failed to see it </rant>) was that I could produce a series of lessons aimed at late primary/early secondary, with the aim of inspiring these kids to take up programming. Scratch was perfect because you can produce something in no time at all, and produce something tangible at that!  – Not learning a concept or a methodology, this is something that the students will be able to share with their family and peers.

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Image “What 42 million scratch scripts look like” by Andresmh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lessons took place the week commencing 7th July with a group of 10 students in Year 7 from the Waterhead Academy, Oldham. Thankfully the Waterhead Academy’s IT lessons are already far better than my own (and I suspect many other school’s). Some of the children had used Scratch before, some hadn’t, but all were there because they wanted to be; they had an interest in programming and it was my job to nourish that.

Each lesson was one hour long, starting with ‘what is software’ right through to making a game. Overall the response was everything I’ve hoped for and more. The students were fantastic, they followed the tasks I set them, but also expanded on them as they thought of their own ideas. To the point where much of my lesson plan went out of the window and the students were dictating where we went next. From lesson one they made it clear they wanted to make games (no surprise!), so I brought that in early and ditched one of the other planned lessons. A game was important because, however simple, it allowed the kids to make the connection between what we were doing, and what real Software Developers do. Having something tangible that they could play with and show their peers was a big motivation to do a good job!

I wanted to share a summary of what we did each lesson. Some of the ideas came from a series of online lessons plans, which can be found here. It’s important to note that I had a mixed ability group, and some of the students had used Scratch before and were familiar with concepts such as IF…ELSE…FOREVER

The lesson plan can be downloaded from here.