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Letting Students Take the Lead with Scratch

By Mary Adelaide, ScratchEd Intern

When Ryan Smith first encountered Scratch, he didn’t know what to expect. He had an extensive background in computer programming, and he assumed Scratch would be fairly simplistic. That changed once he began testing its capabilities.

“At first, I thought it was just moving a cat around,” he said. “Then, with time, I realized there was so much more to it. I started to see extensive crossovers between my pre-existing background and what you can do in Scratch.”

Ryan, a former high school math and science teacher, is a technology services consultant within the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Bracebridge, Ontario, Canada. His role involves supporting teachers and students with technological initiatives, including a new coding initiative introduced in January 2016 that draws on Scratch to teach coding fundamentals. The initiative began with grades 4 through 6 and has since been expanded to grades 1 through 8.

“We chose to use Scratch because of the open-ended nature of the environment it provides,” Ryan explained. “We really were looking for a place where it wasn’t just following the next step. With Scratch, we found students could start to be creative and come up with their own designs, projects, and ideas to explore.”

At each school in the district, three teachers participate in the coding initiative: one teacher from grades 1-3, one from grades 4-6, and one from grades 7-8. Along with professional development time, the teachers receive iPads or Chromebooks, depending on grade level, for their classes. Because participation in the initiative is on an opt-in basis, the teachers Ryan works with are generally enthusiastic despite being new to coding.

“We have teachers who are already very open to the idea, willing, and curious. That’s a benefit for us,” he said. “From there, it can be challenging because a lot of the teachers don’t have much confidence or competence around coding. They need all the support they can get. We spend a lot of our time going into classrooms and supporting teachers who are interested but who aren’t always comfortable.”

To help teachers get their feet wet, Ryan and his colleagues aim to provide easy, accessible starting points. They connect some activities to curriculum to show how Scratch can support students’ learning of topics that teachers are already covering, and they’ve also created instructional videos as resources. In many cases, teachers end up receiving support not just from Ryan and his colleagues, but also from their own students.

Screenshot from the TLDSBCode site, run by Ryan and his colleagues. 

“If the teachers participate as learners, they are able to follow along, and they often see students step up and start taking on the role of helping out,” he said. “It’s great because it helps flip the roles. Many teachers see students whom they don’t expect to take leadership roles start helping their peers or helping their teacher, even, with a challenge or an activity. It’s been some really awesome learning for teachers who are willing to take part.”

According to Ryan, this role-switching happens naturally as long as teachers are willing to let their students take the lead.

“Usually there are three or four kids in a class who are picking up Scratch very quickly and are really comfortable with what’s going on, and all of a sudden, they’re out of their seats walking across the room to help their peers,” he explained. “It’s amazing. The teachers have said the great side benefit is that it’s also trickled into other subject areas. In a math activity or in languages, students take that confidence and the openness of the classroom to get up out of their seats and start helping their peers or working in groups. They’re learning collaboration and teamwork from Scratch to then apply to other subjects. It’s just been awesome to see them gaining that confidence through their coding.”

A look inside a student-led Scratch activity. 

Ryan has also seen students taking initiative and getting involved in their learning in new ways after being introduced to Scratch. One group of students, determined to make their characters in Scratch games fall more realistically from one platform to the next, independently researched ways of modeling gravity within Scratch and presented their findings to each other. Another student realized he could code his own flashcards in Scratch, and after a hint or two from Ryan, he took it a step further and created his own multiplication game. (He also aced the quiz he’d been studying for.)

“There have been a lot of side benefits that have come out with interest and exposure to coding,” Ryan said. “That’s what we were hoping: that students would learn to think and be creative with it.”