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Winter 2014

Brennan by Design

After a meandering academic path, Assistant Professor Karen Brennan finally found her calling: helping students and teachers become coders, creators, and learners, one Scratch at a time.

Karen BrennanIllustrations by Peter Horvath

You can hear Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" blaring inside Askwith Lecture Hall even before you get to the beige double doors. It's the third meeting of the fall semester for T-550, and inside, the room is buzzing. TAs are moving up and down the steps, taping big sheets of blank paper along the walls, nine on each side. Students are everywhere, laughing and talking. A few seem to be dancing. Nearly a dozen are circling a folding table on the stage stacked with more energy: boxes of doughnuts and Starbucks coffee.

It's 8:15 a.m. For a graduate class meeting this early on a Tuesday morning, the atmosphere is a bit unexpected.

That's exactly how Assistant Professor Karen Brennan wants it. A recent transplant from the MIT Media Lab, Brennan jokes that she was actually bummed when assigned to Askwith, despite it being one of the brightest and prettiest rooms on our campus.

"It's called Askwith Lecture Hall," she says, stressing the middle word. "But there will be no lecturing! For me, it became more like, let's occupy Askwith! It's a playground, a lab, a cafe, but never a lecture hall."

Brennan's teaching and learning approach owes much to her time at MIT, specifically the Lifelong Kindergarten research group, under director Mitch Resnick, who was her guest speaker that morning in class.

Under Resnick, she says, "you're never told how to think about something." Plus, "if I'm lecturing, I can't understand how the students would be making sense of anything."

Over the next three hours of Designing for Learning by Creating, Brennan speaks in front of the class very little: She introduces Resnick for a few minutes and later presents four students who will be facilitating the second hour of class — an activity where students come up with ideas for digitally enhanced learning experiences that don't already exist. Toward the end of class, she spends about 10 minutes discussing key points in that week's readings and gives them a sneak peak of what's on for next week. Still, Brennan's presence in the class is always felt. While students are working in small groups on the activity, she quietly moves around the room, listening and nudging for more detail. She genuinely seems interested in what each student shares. As Resnick says of her style, "Karen is a true constructionist, recognizing that knowledge cannot be delivered by the teacher but must be actively constructed by the learner."

***

It is this active constructing that has, in some ways, become the overarching focus of Brennan's work and research. Her recent MIT dissertation, for example, looked at the experience of students and teachers who have become creators of technology, in and out of school. This is what got her interested in Scratch, one of the main projects she worked on when she was at MIT, as well as the offshoot she started and has since brought to the Ed School: ScratchEd. Scratch is a free, easy-to-use, online programming platform that allows users at home or in school to create — from scratch, not templates — their own interactive games, stories, music, and animations. Creations can then be shared with others. Scratch was created with kids in mind, mostly upper elementary through high school, as a way to support their learning, but, as the Scratch website says, "there's nothing stopping anyone from giving it a crack." (Resnick points out that even his 83-year-old mom uses it and recently created an animated birthday card for him.) The program turns users, who now number in the millions from 150 different countries, into coders — an important literacy skill that Brennan stresses all students should have.

"It's important for kids to be creators, not just consumers of technology," she says. Nowadays, most kids, even the savvy "digital natives" who can expertly fly around their iPads and Xboxes, engage passively with technology as they play video games or access existing information from sites like Wikipedia or YouTube. They point, they click, they browse, but they rarely design or produce.

The problem with this, Brennan says, is that technology makes us vulnerable. Quoting Douglas Rushkoff, one of the authors she assigns to her students, she says, "'Program or be programmed.' We are surrounded by computational interfaces that control almost every part of our lives. That makes us vulnerable to the inclinations, the desires of the designers. Take Facebook for example. Enormous decisions about privacy are being made by the people who created it, and [users] just take it as is." (You won't find Brennan on Facebook, but @karen_brennan is very active on Twitter, where she has more than 1,400 followers.)

Another way to think about it, she says, is to consider reading and writing. Being able to use computers but not create with technology is like being able to read but not write. There are also missed learning opportunities when kids only point and click. But when they create with a program like Scratch, students might learn about math concepts. Adding something that allows a game to keep track of the score, for example, teaches about variables. Students also learn skills often touted as essential in the 21st century: how to think creatively and how to communicate clearly.

"My mission is not to make everyone a computer scientist," Brennan says. "Yes, we do desperately need more programmers, but for me, it's about having another medium for self-expression."

Brennan got involved with Scratch just after joining the Media Lab in 2007, a few months after Scratch debuted to the public. It was the ideal time to show up, she says, allowing her to use her ethnographer skills.

"I was able to see what people would do with Scratch. When they created it, they had an idea about how kids would react, but they weren't sure," she says. She started asking "Scratchers" questions online and when she visited schools where Scratch was being used. At the same time, the Scratch creators, including Resnick, were thinking about ways to broaden participation. Brennan had an idea.

Teachers already using Scratch in their K–12 classrooms were emailing her, looking for lesson plans or offering to share information on what they were trying with their students. More than anything, they were looking for ways to connect with other educators using Scratch.

"I thought, what if we could get more teachers involved?" she says. "That became my all-consuming passion. I'm super crazy about teachers. They're so passionate about their students."

She and Resnick applied for a National Science Foundation grant, which allowed them in 2009 to start ScratchEd with the help of several Ed School student interns, including Ashley Lee, Ed.M.'10, now an Ed School doctoral student, and Michelle Chung, Ed.M.'10, who stayed on with the project after she graduated. Since then, nearly 7,500 educators from around the world have joined. Online resources include handouts, tutorials, videos, and lesson plans, in subject areas ranging from music to language arts to science and engineering.

A complex laptop illustration/collage. In T-550 this semester, Brennan's students are using these resources to design and produce their own interactive Scratch projects that could be used in classrooms. They are also keeping a design journal that is shared online with the rest of the class and writing a 4,000-word paper analyzing what they created in relation to the course readings. A few weeks into the semester, Brennan had students take their first shot at creating a simple Scratch project demo. Many were silly and fun as the students — most without prior programming experience — played around with the tools. A few, however, were focused on learning. One student started an animated book where a fox named Freddy wanders into a library and decides he'd like to learn to read. Ava, a fairy, says she can help and summons her magic carpet to take them to school. In her design journal, the student creator wrote that this was the beginning exploration in how storytelling can increase empathy in small children. Another student created a simple math project with a talking monkey who helps young users count the number of bananas in the numerators and denominators of fraction examples. In another demo, users had to add a comma to sentences to change the meaning — and save a life, including Brennan's, whose photo was in front of a lion's mouth with the sentence: "Did the lion eat Karen?"

At the end of her dissertation, Brennan shares a story about interviewing a 17-year-old Scratch user five years after they initially met. Asked about her experience with Scratch, the student tells Brennan she doesn't know where to start. "When I think about my life, I almost divide it into two parts — life before Scratch and life after Scratch," she finally says. Brennan's response? "Me too."

Brennan's pre-Scratch life only showed hints of where she would end up in her life and career. Born just outside Ottawa, her early passion had nothing to do with coding computers or even academia, but with music — specifically, the piano.

"One of my mom's lifelong dreams was to one day have a piano," Brennan says. "When I was five, my dad bought one. From then on, from the age of five until 20, I took lessons and played seriously." She eventually taught piano and thought she would make a living as a classical pianist. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), she majored in music.

"But then I realized I hated it," she says. Not the piano, but the competitive part of playing. She transferred to the University of Montreal, where she had a better experience. However, in time, she realized something game-changing: Music wasn't what she wanted to do with her life.

"With one course to go, I dropped out," she says. "My parents, I think I broke their hearts," especially after she told them what she was going to do next: Go back to UBC and major in math. "I might as well have said I was running off to join the circus! That might have made more sense to them."

It made sense to a friend who reminded her that she not only liked math, but also "geeking out" with computers. When Brennan was about 11, her father, a salesman for the 3M company, brought home an early-model computer running MSDOS. Brennan remembers tinkering for hours on the computer, sometimes staying up all night.

"It was easier to tinker with early computers," she says. "Now they're just so user-friendly."

Her friend suggested she double major in both math and computer science, a field Brennan now jokes she had no idea you even could major in. Unfortunately, Brennan's feelings about math started to resemble her feelings about music.

"Once I was doing it, it didn't feel right," she says. "But I totally became obsessed with computer science. It made me see the world in a whole new way. Computers are often perceived as mysterious and magical objects. [Science fiction writer] Arthur C. Clarke has a fantastic line about this: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Studying computer science helped me see beyond that mystery and magic and into the people, processes, and assumptions underlying computational artifacts."

It also made her want more ("I wasn't ready to give up being a student!"), so with her bachelor's degree in hand, she applied to MIT , to the school's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. There she designed hardware. She liked it, but again, those feelings of something not quite being right started to sink in. With permission from her adviser, she decided to take a year break. She flew back to Canada, to Vancouver, where her husband was. After five days, she says she "freaked out." There was no way she could spend a year doing nothing. So, a week before classes started at UBC, her old stomping grounds, she showed up at the school of education with fingers crossed. Luckily, students with math and computer science backgrounds were scarce but in demand, so she got in.

"I fell in love with education and learning research," she says. She went on to finish a master's in curriculum studies but then got itchy again. She missed the building and technology side of learning. Playing around on the computer one day, she finally found a way to tie all of the pieces together: Go back to MIT , this time to the Media Lab.

"I was nervous," she says. "When I went to MIT the first time, I had heard about the lab. I thought of it as that weird place where weird people did weird stuff. Then I realized, I'm a weird person who wants to do weird stuff. I fell in love with Mitch, my colleagues, and the lab, and I thought, finally, this is it."

Brennan jokes that maybe Resnick picks his students that way. "We're all from meandering paths," she says. "Weird, intellectual misfits."

Resnick may think that, but he says that one of the reasons Brennan really fit at the lab has more to do with how she easily cuts across boundaries, being equally at ease designing a user interface as she is with running a hands-on workshop for teenagers or organizing a professional development seminar for educators. A positive outcome, perhaps, of her meandering path.

"When I first met Karen, I knew that she was the perfect fit. She brought together a great range of interests and expertise — degrees in both education and computer science," Resnick says, "an ability to think both creatively and analytically, and a passion for learning new things combined with a commitment to helping others learn new things."

Chung says, "Her generosity, especially towards her students," really stood out when she was interning for Brennan at the Media Lab. "She cares so much about them and their learning."

Brennan is quick to deflect the credit, giving it back to the students themselves, especially the many students from the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program who, like Chung, interned at the Media Lab.

"There's a magic with HGSE master's students that I haven't encountered anywhere else," she says. Moving the ScratchEd project from MIT to Harvard, she adds, "wouldn't have been possible without them."

Back in class, the last break for the day is ending. Brennan turns down the music, "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics, just as Donovan, a student who had been sitting in the front row, lets out a huge "Woooh!" as he pumps his fist in the air. It's loud and another unexpected moment in a graduate class at Harvard, but it is also fitting for the energy level that has been maintained by everyone in the room.

It could be the refueling of doughnuts and coffee. "Karen is a big believer in making sure people are well fed," Chung says, "especially when they're working on creative projects."

It could be the fact that students don't feel the heavy pressure to perform: Brennan doesn't grade papers and projects along the way, including the demo Scratch projects they created the week before. She says she wants students to have the freedom to try new things and take intellectual risks. It seems to be working. During class, when the students talk about what went right and what didn't with their Scratch demos, one student says she would have been less willing to explore if there had been a grade on the line. Another says the range of projects would have been less diverse if students started to think, What will get me an A? "I also would have lost the excitement," she says.

In this way, Chung says Brennan gives her students the opportunity to take control of their learning. "As she said to this year's T-550 cohort: 'Be bold. Be crazy. Surprise yourself. What do you have to lose? Nothing really, except, of course, sleep.'"

Brennan adds, "I say to students, imagine that the only limitation is you." In an era of school budget and time constraints, this sense of empowerment is necessary when students go out into the real world and try to use Scratch or their own creative Scratch-like projects to change learning, Brennan says.

"The work of designers is to move from the actual to the aspirational. You need to be moving toward the aspirational. You may be moving just a little, but you need to be moving," she says. "There's also power in numbers. The more people embrace the idea that this type of learning matters in school, the more people who think there can be an alternative, the better chance there is that change will happen in schools."

A stylized shot of Karen Brennan.Karen Brennan Likes & Quirks

Favorite composer: Bach
Favorite piano player that might surprise her students: Glenn Gould. And not just because he was Canadian, a hypochondriac, and preoccupied by technology. I really think that no one performed Bach better!
Guilty pleasure: Watching teen drama television shows
Addiction: Books, although I try to avoid paper
Favorite doughnut flavor: Chocolate frosted, but I’m vegan, so I didn’t actually eat any doughnuts this semester.