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Helping Educators Learn Scratch: An Interview with Joe Polman of the University of Missouri

We recently interviewed Joe Polman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Division of Teaching and Learning at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In his educational technology courses, Joe introduces a diverse audience of master’s students, practicing teachers, pre-service teachers, informal educators, and doctoral candidates to Scratch using an in-class lab approach. Here’s what he had to share with the ScratchEd Team about his background, teaching style, and lessons he’s learned along the way.

ST: How did you get started with Scratch?
JP: I volunteered at the Computer Clubhouse for maybe a year or two in the early 90s. I can’t remember what version of Logo we were using back then. I became familiar with Logo, so when Scratch came out, I was primed to see what was going on with it. The thing that I was most intrigued with, in contrast to the prior versions of Logo, was the high degree of social networking in the way the Scratch community was set up. So that’s one of the reasons why I like introducing it to teachers because it has this nice combination of building technological fluency, which Logo had, but it’s combined with these really nice means of sharing code and reusing code, along with building the community and sharing ideas, which I find so interesting. 

ST: What about your current work?
JP: Since 1999, I’ve been a faculty member at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. I’m in our College of Education, in the Division of Teaching and Learning, and I teach graduate courses in Educational Technology. We talk about theories and practices of learning with technology, most prominently in a course called “Cognition and Technology,” that’s about computer-supported collaborative learning. I have readings about theoretically-informed designs of learning technologies and learning activities based around those technologies. Then, we have lab time where the educators get to play the student and do some of the activities that they’ve been reading about, and then, we use both their experience and the readings to discuss what’s going on from a learning technologies standpoint. I do that with Scratch, and I’ve done that in probably six or eight different courses.

ST: Interesting. And what’s been the feedback?
JP: One of my experiences is that Scratch is high-end sophisticated technology, meaning that it’s ambitious relative to other tools from a technology standpoint, but teachers pick Scratch right up. In a one-hour session, they’ve done something interesting and exciting. Relative to all the other tools that I introduce, there is a really high percentage of them that want to try Scratch in their classrooms. “Really high” is still only about 25%, but it’s exciting when teachers come back three weeks later and say, “I really wanted to try something out in my classroom and I already did something with that.”

ST: What does that one-hour session look like? How do you get that 25% excited about Scratch?
The Scratch Getting Started Guide is the key. Across a semester, I’m introducing various technologies, giving people a sense of them and what they can do with them, and wanting them to pick them up. The Getting Started Guide and the Scratch Cards are tools I use so I don’t have to prep my own guide, which I have to do for the other tools. I start by walking through the Getting Started Guide activity, and then have them pick a Scratch Card to continue working with.

ST: Can you talk about some of the challenges you face?
JP: One of the challenges is that this is a population of people who don’t generally have much time. Many of the folks I work with have a full-time job at school, take graduate courses in the evening, have young families, and you know, it’s just crazy. It’s a challenge to make things accessible in the time that people have. Doing the in-class lab is part of the strategy I use to make this accessible and work for the diversity of interests and technological fluency that people have. 

ST: What are some of the successes?
Focusing on the technological fluency, a cynical view would be that the less-experienced people might slow things down especially if the instructor is asking more savvy folks to help out the ones having more trouble, which is what I do. But the truth is, these are people who are interested in education, so they enjoy helping other people. I see over and over again that the ones who are more advanced are so happy about the way they helped someone who still isn’t very confident to build self-confidence through positive experiences. For me, as an instructor, and for those people who are helping out, it’s just great to see somebody who has shared with us that they had trouble in the past and gotten frustrated, then have positive experiences and be so proud of the things they were able to do. And in the case of Scratch, there’s also this aspect of making a thing that has this “thingness” that is nice. “I made this thing, and I put my little twist on it. It might just be that I’m copying this code, and instead of using the image that somebody else used, it’s an image that I brought in,” but they’re still making it their own in some way.

ST: How do you situate Scratch in a learning/cognition framework? How do you help your students think about programming if there’s some skepticism around it for them?
The nice thing about Scratch relative to that is, it can be adapted for so many angles. In my classes, I talk a lot about scaffolding and the affordances and constraints of technologies, as well as the activities that people like teachers can design to be done with technologies. I also talk a lot about learning communities, and social processes of learning, putting Scratch within that whole framework of thinking. The way I recommend doing it is thinking about what kinds of affordances and scaffolding relate to disciplinary themes that each teacher will be interested in. I ask them to think about how they can embed Scratch in that and what sorts of tools and activities they can use in their classrooms. I was recently giving a presentation to pre-service teachers about teaching kids states of matter in elementary Science class. We were talking about using concept mapping, and I just did a search in Scratch, and sure enough, I found one program where a kid did a narrated description of states of matter with little drawings, and sure enough, another one did a more advanced modeling activity. It’s just a flexible tool.

Brian Foley

 Very nice Joe - and good to see you at AERA.  \

Some of my teachers are pretty skeptical of Scratch at first, but once they see how much students like using it, they start to warm to the idea.  But we still need some more ideas about how to integrate it into their curriculum.


Amitai Gat

I invite you to look at and use my Scratch Cards. You can download them here free of charge.

Let me know what you think.