“We’ve made this mistake for decades, for centuries: we thought that we needed to make things easy for children”

Derek Breen, the author and the designer of “Scratch For Kids”, visited Moscow to take part in the international conference on new educational technologies #EDCRUNCH. We were lucky to ask him a couple of questions about his book, about Scratch and about the role of programming in young children’s lives.

What did you like most about working on the book?

What I liked the most about working on the book was discovering little special tricks in Scratch. I relied heavily on – there’s a Scratch Wiki that is edited by people all over the world. So I used this Scratch Wiki whenever I was developing a game or an animation and if I got stuck and I’d go to the Wiki. Then I discovered there is a random page link in the Wiki, so whenever I got stuck I would go to the Wiki and just click on the random page thing. And every once in a while something would come up that I didn’t know was possible in Scratch and I think that was my favorite thing. So I’m so grateful to the people that contributed to the Wiki. And fun I just met Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) 15 minutes ago! And so we have him to thank!

In your opinion why it is important to teach children coding from early childhood?

I used to think it is not a good idea to teach coding or to have many digital tools in school for 5-year-olds. And I would still be cautious about bringing computers and tablets and phones into a kindergarten classroom. Not because I don’t want 5-year-olds to learn how to code or how to do digital design, it is because they are spending so much time with digital media outside of school that I think it’s very important at a young age to have a place where they can learn about a variety of things and not be as distracted by the digital aspects of what’s happening in the classroom. The books that I wrote were developed for out of school learning. If they are at home, and here is what I think: it is vital to give tools to children as young as even 3 or 4 that they can play with the tools that are digital. Have you been on an airplane lately or on a train? You see families travelling together and almost every child has a digital device in their hands. It is a way that the parents can get a break or it is just a thing that kids really want to do, it means they either watching usually animation or playing video games. That’s starting at 2-3 years old. Actually, by 4 or 5 years old they are spending all this time consuming digital media. I want to give them ways to create digital media as soon as they are ready and a good example is my nephew: he started using ScratchJr when he was 4,5 – before he knew how to read and that meant he created his own animations and games on a tablet rather than just playing games and watching animation. Now he is 6,5 and he is using Scratch – he calls it Scratch Senior because of Scratch Junior– and he is now becoming fluent in programming so he is able to create games that are sophisticated for someone of his age. And it gets me so excited. He is 6 now, he started Scratch Junior when he was 4,5, last summer when he was 5,5 he started using Scratch and this summer at 6,5 he was teaching someone at MIT how to do something in scratch and they are in the Scratch team but it was something they never done before. There is a great video: if you do a search on YouTube for “Henry Scratch Jr” – Henry is his name – the video was made when he was 4,5 and he is talking about ScratchJr and why he thinks it’s cool what makes it cool.

Animation and coding are tasks for grownups. Why do children like such hard work?

I want to share a term that was coined by an educational philosopher and practitioner who has had a huge impact on my life and on my work. His name is Seymour Papert. Seymour Papert worked with Jean Piaget in the 1950s, and in the mid-60s, he moved to the United States and started working at MIT on technologies for children. Seymour Papert co-developed the first programming language for children called Logo, which is the direct sort of like the grandmother of Scratch. What Seymour started to notice: the more that you work with children he started to recognize that just like we recognize now so many children are bored in school and when you are bored you cannot learn. And also when you are bored it means that you are not engaged whatever the activities are. Generally, if you are bored it usually means things are too easy. He started to give students harder and harder tasks to do. And one day there was a child maybe 7-8-9 years old who was trying to program, and the child said: “It is really hard! But it’s really fun!” And so, Seymour starts using this phrase: “hard fun” that in fact games are hard, the games that children play are hard, minecraft is hard! When you are learning something new, it is very hard. And we’ve made this mistake for decades, for centuries: we thought that we needed to make things easy for children. But it means that school wasn’t as fun as games. Now if we can bring that level of engagement up I think that we can do it by providing hard things and then helping to students achieve that hard thing. You know from experience how satisfying it is when you complete something that’s hard. So Scratch is a wonderful tool, one of many wonderful tools, that have a low ceiling – it is very easy to start using Scratch – but really wide walls, it means you can go in so many directions. You can do things that are really hard to do until you’ve learned them. Maybe my favorite thing to tell parents about Scratch is: one of the reasons why kids love Scratch so much is that (it) enables them to very quickly do things that can’t do an adult. So it flips and the same thing in schools: when I train teachers it is very important for me to tell them that within a few hours they are going to be students who know things that the teacher doesn’t know. And this is very important for teachers to start to get used to the idea that there are not necessarily be experts in the room at all times.

Can a child create a masterpiece in Scratch?

Absolutely! Have you ever seen a painting of 4 or 5 year old that you wanted to hang on your wall? (Of) all the work I’ve ever done maybe my favorite piece is something I did when I was 4-5 years old that my mother framed. It’s a finger-painting, it’s only 9 or 10 lines but actually it looks like a fence in a rainstorm, I don’t even know if it was my intention to draw a fence but I created something that was abstract which is something that young children do really well. With Scratch they are able to create somewhat abstract or maybe simplistic or playful things.

https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/72556952/

What piece of advice could you give to the teachers who want to promote love of their pupils not only to the proper use of new technologies but also to the creation of technologies?

Mitchel Resnick runs a research group at the MIT media lab called “the lifelong kindergarten group” evoking our childhood memories of kindergarten and maybe inspiring us to think about how we could stay in that playful space. A lot of the research of the group is funded by Lego, which is the company that really embodies this playful aspect in such a cool way. So, Mitchel Resnick said many times that if we do not teach children how to program it is like teaching children how to read and not teaching them how to write. We are denying them access to this new form of literacy. Too often in schools we are just handing them a technology to use or to experience when e-book to read or maybe a math game to play but it’s really important as the tools are available they enable them to create media. We are empowering them to be part of the digital culture. They are being welcomed into that digital culture at a younger and younger age. ScratchJr only came out 2 years ago, so as of 2 years ago there was a tool that let 4-year-olds create digital media - this excites me at such a deep level. Again it is very important to me, I do not want anyone to think – if we are talking to teachers – I don’t want a teacher in preschool to think that they are required to bring technology into the classroom. But I want to make sure that they are aware of the technologies that are available to students to maybe encourage them to use them in a small way whether it’s in or out of school, so something like ScratchJr or Scratch which are completely free and open-source. And there are new tools that are coming: there is a tool called “Turtle art” that makes kids really easily be able to create complex hard work. Another one called “music blocks” that lets them compose their own music using blocks just like Scratch, there is even one more called “tale blazer” that lets kids make their own augmented reality games like Pokémon Go. There are all sorts of tools available. We are creating a meetup group in Moscow called “Scratch educator meetups” so each month we are going to be hosting a meetup at different schools or at different companies around Moscow where teachers can come and be exposed to this tools, learn a little bit and then share their ideas with each other. This is something that will be starting next month in October and we will be promoting it as a part of Code week.

This interview was conducted by Alexandra Meltseva

International journal “Early Childhood Education Today” is a general media partner of the international conference “Early Childhood Care and Education” (ECCE 2017): http://en.ecceconference.com/