Is Computing Like Eating Vegetables

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I’ve been having conversations with various students about learning Scratch.  I find it really helpful just to ask for honest answers, and I love that most 8th graders will actually be honest.  The main answer I get about learning Scratch is that students find it too hard.  It’s too much work, they say, to get any good results.  Or it’s too tedious.  I find this interesting because they’ll do math and science that’s also pretty hard.

It’s a possibility, of course, that I’m the problem.  It’s also probably a contributing factor that this course isn’t an academic one and only meets once a week.  The first thing I might be able to work on.  The second is out of my control.

Reports abound that CS is a great field economically.  Yet, it’s not filled with women.  It’s also not gaining too much traction in high schools.  We keep telling people that CS is “good for you” but people aren’t engaging.  Is Scratch like putting ice cream on brussell sprouts?  Or worse, maybe it is brussell sprouts.  If that’s true, I’m not sure how to fix that.  Look at what’s going on with nutrition these days.  Eat your vegetables has been a mantra for years and yet, our obesity problem increases.

Teachers and companies are trying to make CS fun.  Gaming, graphics, the Kinect, robotics, e-textiles have all been put forward as ways to increase CS interest and enrollment.  Maybe it’s going to take a while for all that to have an effect.  I know my Upper Schoolers are pretty engaged, even as we get to more difficult concepts, so maybe it’s just 8th grade.  Maybe I need to engage them with something other than Scratch.


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7 Replies to “Is Computing Like Eating Vegetables”

  1. “It’s also probably a contributing factor that this course isn’t an academic one and only meets once a week.”

    I think this is a big part of the issue. I think programming can be hard, especially for some students. In math and science and foreign language (which can also be hard, in the sense that they can require significant and sustained mental effort in the form of problem solving, practice, and memory skills) the students are first, required to do the work, and second, receive feedback which “goes on their permanent record.”

    A one day a week elective that’s not fun-fun-fun can’t compete as an academic subject that requires academic effort. If you are expecting (or the school is expecting you to deliver) academic level work and learning with an elective level class, I don’t really see how it can work. Our school has this issue with its treatment of foreign language classes. The parents are expecting more learning than can occur for most children, given the attitude (time, homework, students attitude) towards the class. Some kids will love it, but others will float through (not the least because their brain’s duty cycles have to concentrate on their hard academic subjects, that count).

    I don’t have a solution suggestion — because I do think the work is “hard” and I don’t think that the hard work can just be made fun to get kids to do it and learn. But, I continue to be interested in seeing the solutions you come up with — especially if you’re seeing different effects in different grades/classes.

  2. bj, this is a required course, but I have them so briefly (and only for a 1/3 of the year) that I think it’s hard for them to take seriously. I see this effect primarily in 8th and primarily after the first trimester when their other course work starts to load them down. The course is going to change next year to accommodate some other changes, so we’ll see what happens. In my CS course, which is entirely elective, I don’t see the same attitude. They all put in effort, even when things get hard.

  3. I’ve taught similar once-a-week courses for most of my career, and the best solution I’ve found to that problem is to move YOUNGER. In my current position I work with 5th graders, who make a lot fo the same complaints about Scratch but on the whole accomplish more in a given period and retain more from week to week.

    While there are significant challenges when presenting Scratch to younger students (a vast majority have no familiarity with Cartesian coordinates, so Move blocks seem really weird), but my recent experience suggests that their weak personal aesthetic balances that out. Older MS students will reject Scratch because it’s confusing and ugly, and they generate a lot of negative emotions when they work hard/struggle and then produce something that doesn’t “look cool.” 5th graders are far more willing to accept the reality of 400×300 graphics and that lets them get to the joy of having made SOMETHING, rather than a shame spike from making something that looks juvenile.

  4. Laura – I’ll be interested in seeing how that works for you! One of the best parts of my current course is that I don’t have to look for amazing accomplishments in my 5th graders – just engagement, enjoyment and growth. The amazing stuff seems to come much later. This morning, a 7th grader who last touched Scratch in our 5th grade class, fired it up to play with nested loops to drive a miniPOV device. Once she was sure that the idea worked, she was willing to struggle through the process of minicing/adapting the C-syntax for the Arduino.

    Obviously, that made my freakin’ year.

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