By Matthew DeMello
Professor Mitchel Resnick. Photo by Joi Ito.
“In our mind, creating computer code and creating your own computer projects, should be the same as building with LEGO bricks,” says Professor Mitchel Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.
Such was the philosophy behind Scratch, a simplified coding language developed by Professor Resnick and his team to help engage young children in the wider world of computer code.
The LEGO comparison is an apt one, and Resnick would know since he is also the Papert Professor of Learning Research for the Dutch building block company. The very creations made by thousands of children using the Scratch software — comprising of everything from virtual greeting cards to interactive storybooks and anime comic strips — have the same innocently playful, yet intuitively explorative quality of everyday LEGO projects, as exemplified in Resnick’s recent Ted Talk on the subject.
What also makes Scratch special is its capacity for interactivity – an essential element in making an educational experience that much more meaningful to the lives of children.
In the latest version of the software released in May of this year, users can see how different projects were made at various stages, and even make their own changes (or “remix” them) as they see fit. The expanded sharing capacity of Scratch 2.0 brings thousands of new people to the online community every day, expanding the diversity of Scratch projects as well as the collaborative and educational possibilities therein.
Coding and education have been on a collision course as of late, with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates endorsing a public service campaign earlier this year on the importance of helping children learn the wonders of code and early. Resnick is among the most passionate proponents of coding education, insisting that students should be taught coding for the same reasons as other elementary disciplines, regardless of the career opportunities involved – which are, by the way, pretty great.
“It’s undoubtedly true that there’s a very big gap between the demand for programmers and computer scientists and the supply, and that is one reason for learning to code and a good reason to learn to code, but I think it is only one reason,” says Resnick. “I think we need to expand the way of thinking about coding, to recognize that it’s important for everyone, even those who will never grow up to get a job as a professional programmer or computer scientist; the same way we think it’s important for everyone to learn to write even though very few people grow up to be professional writers.”
Yet his advocacy tends to throw some for a loop when he makes pointed critiques about other areas where technology and impressionable young minds are interacting. In the past, he’s been called a “critic” of computerized learning, but Resnick feels that label might be a bit strong when you look into the specifics of his analysis.
In a recent interview with the Hechinger Report, Resnick made pointed criticisms of how online courses in higher education tend to promote multiple choice problem solving over more meaningful, collaborative, project-based educational methods, which can be dangerous. Yet these risks don’t just exist at the college level, says Resnick, but across all educational levels as technology becomes more prevalent.
“We do see oftentimes increasingly technology is used to provide assessment, and if you are offering assessments through the technology and you’re trying to have it automatically assess for large groups of people, it ends up focusing on types of multiple choice, true-false assessments and I don’t think those really capture the most important things people learn,” he comments.
That’s not to say that technology-based education is categorically a bad thing, or else why bother being so engaged in such endeavors as using software to help children to learn computer coding?
As with the current wave of public schools enacting budget-friendly transitions from bulky text books to lightweight iPads, it’s not necessarily the technology being given to kids in schools that’s worth worrying about as much as how these devices is being used. Says Resnick, “I would never say books are good or bad, it’s all depends what books you choose to read and the same goes for technology.”
Rather than simply nay-saying tech-based education, the problems Resnick sees in how technology is used in classrooms today respond to larger questions over how students learn that educators have been arguing over since far before computers were commonplace in classrooms. For instance: Is it better for a student to regurgitate what they think their teachers consider the right or wrong answer, or be able to discern the truth for themselves when the answers become more complex than just A, B, or C?
That is a generalization of the predicament(s) for sure, but Resnick tends to come out on the side of the latter, reinforcing the belief that collaborative, creative, and critical thinking need to be the foremost goals of a good education system, whether students are using number two pencils or touch screens.
“In many places, computers are being used to reproduce traditional approaches to education and learning, just being a more efficient way to deliver information and to deliver instruction,” says Resnick. “And again, I think that can be useful in some cases, but I don’t think that we will live up to the potential of new digital technologies if we only use them to recreate existing patters of learning in education.”