Adventures in Programming
A new guide to creative computing empowers teachers and students
Computer science has long been perceived as — and often introduced to young people as — something so dense and difficult that only a very few of us can hope to understand it, much less do it. Seen as the domain of the highly technical or the super geek, computing has been an exclusive club, even as computational technology fuels an expanding array of our daily activities.
For teachers looking to shift that paradigm, help has arrived, in the form of an exhilarating and easy-to-use curriculum guide called Creative Computing, released in August by the ScratchEd team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Starting from the premise that computing is an expressive and empowering act for everyone — a vital new form of literacy — the guide lays out a set of ideas, strategies, and activities for an introductory creative computing experience using the Scratch programming language, though it can be used with other languages as well. Scratch is a good way to begin this journey because it allows early (and more advanced) users to create and share interactive media projects like animations, stories, and games.
Aimed at a wide audience — K–12 teachers, museum and library educators, college instructors, and parents — the guide is organized into seven units, each featuring a series of activities designed to encourage fluency with computational thinking. By emphasizing four key principles — creating, personalizing, sharing, and reflection — the activities aim to help teachers create a culture of experimentation and fearlessness.
Want to get started? For teachers and students who are completely new to programming, the guide makes things easy, and the introductory unit offers a pathway for building a good base:
- Watch the Scratch overview video.
- Join Scratch by setting up an account.
- Create a design journal (physical sample here, digital sample here) to take notes and record thoughts about the process of designing Scratch projects.
- Try to make the Scratch cat (a main character) do something surprising — here are some ideas.
- Learn how to create a studio (sample here) and add a project to the studio.
- Gather in small peer groups to give and receive feedback on ideas and project drafts.
“So many people think that they can be only a consumer in relation to a computer, and not a producer,” says Karen Brennan, the guide’s lead author and the developer of ScratchEd, an online community where Scratch educators can share resources and stories. “I just don’t think that’s a tenable position any more. Computation is such a powerful medium for problem-solving and creative expression — why couldn’t this be something that’s accessible to everyone?”
Students’ early experiences with computing can often feel disconnected from their own lives and interests, limiting their sense of its creative potential. Teachers, she says, “can play an enormous role in thinking about computation as an expressive medium, and then in supporting young learners in imagining themselves as creators, producers, and designers. We tried to write this guide with the idea that everyone would be able to imagine themselves in it — that people would take it, and remix it, and repurpose it to suit their passion and interests.”
Brennan and her colleagues, who include guide co-authors Christan Balch, M.Ed. ’14, and Michelle Chung, M.Ed. ’10, are partnering with the Milton, Mass., school district to study the rollout of the Creative Computing guide, and they plan other follow-up efforts to see how this guide can fit into broader strategies of supporting teachers. “For some teachers, this does involve a shift in role,” Brennan says. “So much of school culture positions teachers as the experts, the ones who know everything, but you have to let go of some of that with design activities, where teachers engage as learners themselves.”
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