Q&A: Scratch That

from Tech&Learning

MIT's Mitchel Resnick says kids should do it for themselves. Here's how.

Mitchel Resnick is a researcher, inventor, and professor at MIT's Media Laboratory in Cambrige, MA, and the founder of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT. He is the lead innovator behind many cutting-edge learning technologies and projects for children, including the Computer Clubhouse, Pico- Crickets, and the wildly successful consumer product, Lego Mindstorms. His latest innovations surround a product he calls Scratch, a digital creativity tool that helps facilitate expression, communication, concepts in interactivity and programming, presentation development, and community-based learning. We asked Resnick for his thoughts on his latest project and what effect technology should have on the way we teach and learn. Here are some highlights. For the full transcript or to listen to an audio podcast, go to techlearning.com and search on Resnick.

T&L: What does "Lifelong Kindergarten" mean?
The Lifelong Kindergarten Group has been the name of my research group for maybe ten or fifteen years now. We've worked on many different projects under that banner. By looking at the way children learn in kindergarten, we developed what I call the "creative learning spiral." In many of the best creative thinking experiences, you start with imagination, you come up with an idea, you create something based on your idea, you play and experiment with that idea, you share it with others, you talk about it with them, they try it out, and they give you feedback. Based on that experience, you reflect upon your ideas, you think about what happened, and that gives you new ideas. Then you're right back again at the beginning with imagining—at which point, you keep on spiraling out with new ideas based on this concept of "imagine, create, play, share, reflect, and imagine." We can see this spiraling concept working really well in most kindergartens. So we ask ourselves, "Why can't we take this same approach to learning and bring it to learners of all ages?"

T&L: What are the concepts behind Scratch and its attempts to make technology more personable, more meaningful, and more accessible to kids?
The first thing is to make sure we think of technology in terms of a material that kids can do things with. Too often today, a lot of technology delivers something to the kid. I think too many technologies are trying to create an experience for kids or deliver information to kids. The more that you give kids control over the technology and allow kids to shape the direction of the technology, the easier it becomes to connect with their personal interests and passions.

T&L: What has been the reaction?
It had a rocky start at the very beginning because there was so much demand. On the first day, our server crashed. But the problem was stabilized quickly and we've been able to support the community well since then. The things I'm happiest with and most surprised about have been the sophistication of the projects people have created with Scratch—things beyond what I imagined could be created with the language we developed. Even more so, I've been impressed with and pleased by the diversity of projects kids have created.

One example that comes to mind—there is a girl in Ireland who instead of making a game, started to make some animated characters. She put these characters online with a message that said, "I like making animated characters. Please feel free to use them in your stories or games. If you want a special character, just leave a message below and I'll make it for you." What she was doing was offering her consulting services on our Web site to make characters for others. So kids started asking her to make characters for their games, and then they put their games online. Another kid offered his skills in making new features that could be added to a game. In several cases, kids would start their own online companies, the first one being a company called "Crank Inc.," which was a group of kids—one in England, one in Ireland, one in Russia, and one in the United States. They started this company making games together where each member made different parts of the game.

Using Scratch, students make their own games, share projects with other kids from around the world, even start virtual companies.

Another great thing we saw was a project called the Scratch News Network, which was modeled after the Cable News Network. This project had a newscaster giving news about what was new on the Scratch Web site. As part of our own efforts running the Scratch Web site, we would feature certain projects on the Scratch home page. However, here was somebody who was giving a newscast of what, in her opinion, were the most important projects to be aware of on the Web site. The first time I saw this, my reaction was "Oh, that's cute. Here's a simulation of a newscast." Then I stopped and realized that this was not a simulation of a newscast, this was a real newscast.

The level of collaboration with the Scratch community has also been exciting to see. Right now we're up to about 130,000 projects on the Scratch Web site. Out of those 130,000 projects, more than 20,000 projects are what we call "remixes," meaning that someone took someone else's project, added things to it, and then uploaded it to the site as their own version.

T&L: What are the best ways teachers can start using Scratch in classrooms this fall?
There are a few ways that I do see Scratch getting into schools. The easiest fit for Scratch is in programming-related studies, which can be an important part of any middle school technology or high school computer science curriculum.

Another way that Scratch is being used is in a similar manner to Powerpoint. Powerpoint is used as a general presentation tool. Whether students are doing a report on the rainforest of Costa Rica or on the presidents of the United States, they might make a presentation using Powerpoint. Scratch can also be used as a presentation tool, and I think its abilities go beyond Powerpoint. First of all, you can make richer dynamic projects. It can be expanded beyond the standard image displays and bullet points of text often found in a typical Powerpoint presentation. I also think Scratch allows users to be more expressive with a richer learning experience. Teachers appreciate that, and once they become familiar with Scratch, they'll start to use it as a tool with students for a wide range of activities. From the early-adopter teachers using Scratch, there are great things happening in their classrooms.

Scott Traylor is the founder of 360KID, a content and technology company developing learning products for publishers, broadcasters, and toy companies. 360KID specializes in the creation of animated, gaming, and social media learning products for clients such as Pearson, McGraw- Hill, PBS, Sesame Workshop, Girl Scouts, LeapFrog, National Geographic, and many others.