Start with Exploration, Not Explanation

By Natalie Rusk

When I’ve asked educators what advice they would offer to someone new to Scratch, the most common advice I’ve heard is, “Dive in!” They encourage students (and fellow educators) to start exploring Scratch, try it out, and learn as they go.

As Scratch is introduced into more classrooms around the world, it’s exciting to watch students dive in and learn through exploration. But, in some settings, Scratch is introduced with a long explanation of the interface and blocks, while students listen passively. This explanatory approach is based on the assumption that students need to be taught how to use Scratch before getting started.

In fact, our group at the MIT Media Lab designed and developed Scratch for learning through exploring, experimenting, and tinkering. Scratch coding blocks are designed like LEGO bricks. Would we give a lecture to children on how to create with building blocks? Probably not! Instead, children learn by putting blocks together and taking them apart. They also pick up new ideas by seeing what others are making and collaborating to make something together.

Once students see how Scratch blocks snap together, they can start creating and notice what happens. Just like with physical building blocks, children learn to code with Scratch by experimenting and revising as they make projects. As the educational pioneer Seymour Papert emphasized: Using comes before understanding. People learn a tool or concept first by using it, and then their understanding develops over time through noticing and reflecting on their experience.

An interesting finding from our research is that young people who have developed broad creative, computational, and collaboration skills with Scratch usually first learned by “playing” or “messing around” with it, trying things out and seeing what worked. This playful approach helped them build their confidence in their ability to learn and problem solve.

So, how do we introduce Scratch in ways that encourage beginners to dive in and start creating? When we offer Scratch workshops, we often show a couple simple but inspiring examples, then give a quick demo. We’ll briefly show how to snap together blocks to make something happen and then encourage getting started. (For ideas on planning a workshop like this, see our new Animate a Character activity guide.)

This month we are launching a new monthly series called Scratch in Practice (SiP) to share ideas and strategies with other educators. We’re interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you help learners get started with Scratch? What have you learned about how what works for your students? Visit the SiP site and join the conversation!


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