Scratch that low floor but high ceiling!


Learning Creative Learning: Projects

We’re onto the second week of the Learning Creative Learning course offered by MIT’s Media Lab.  Last week was the introduction and they covered their Learning Spiral. The course’s purpose is to cover the “key aspects of the Media Lab approach to learning called the 4Ps: Projects, Passion, Peers and Play.”

This week, we are looking at the first “P”:  Projects.  Since Media Lab, who is running this MOOC, is intimately connected with the Scratch programming language, we will focus on Scratch projects this week.  😀 Yeah!  I’m glad we’ll do some hands-on with Scratch, after all.  I was looking for some tutorials about Scratch when I chance-happened upon this course.  I was a little afraid that we’d only cover theory the entire time.

Light-Bulb Moments

There were so many gem statements (light-bulb moments) on this week’s teaching videos on Projects. I especially loved video 3 called, “Making with Scratch“.

Each of these gems (loosely quoted from the videos) could easily become an entire blogpost discussion for me:

  • Projects should be simple, but not easy
  • Students make deeper connections if working with something they care about
  • Projects should have “low floor, high ceiling, wide walls”  [Low floor means it has easily accessible entry points.  High ceiling means the project has lots of potential to stretch learners beyond their present abilities.  Wide walls means that the projects are inclusive and appeal to a wide range of interests and people.]
  • There is no error message in Scratch… It doesn’t “not work”.  It just works differently that what we expected.
  • It’s more exciting to find solutions to problems that you’ve discovered yourself
  • Spending time on Scratch makes children lose interest in TV [as TV is not changeable or interactive].

The light-bulb moment that jumped out at me was when Mitch ResnickNatalie Rusk & Joren were discussing the differences between their Scratch program and the various “learn to code” programs that focus on students solving puzzles and challenges.

Have you ever experienced stumbling across an answer to something before you even knew you had the question? That was what happened to me during video 3.

Looking for a Coding Program

January 1st of this year, I didn’t know a scratch stitch about computer programming. I needed some sort of final project for my Coetail studies. I decided to look into programs to teach students about Coding.   This past December, the whole world was caught up in the “Hour of Code” event.   I tried the first “Hour of Code”.  It was fun and it was good. I’m not a gamer so I wasn’t thrilled to bits.  I was mainly relieved that it wasn’t too difficult and that I was able to solve all the puzzles.  It seemed a possibility that I teach Coding for my final project if I was able to deliver this program.

My four children (ages 8-17) and I embarked on the 20 Hour program (20 Stages) from the Hour of Code during the first week of January, while we were still on winter holidays. I needed to see if I could get through the program myself, before offering to teach it!  I enlisted my children as guinea pigs to trial this program for me 🙂

I  blogged about each stage as part of my final project and also for a form of lesson notes for myself for when I teach the program.  My kids and I had great fun for that entire first week.  Then, “life” started up again; school started up again.  Our enthusiasm waned.  What felt fun and challenging in the beginning was starting to feel tedious.

By the time school started up again, my 12 year old had finished most of the stages (got to stage 17). He was also the one who had spent the most time on Scratch before we attempted the 20 Hour Program. (I had introduced Scratch to my children ~2007 when it first came out.)

Through sheer tenacity, I finished the 20 stages. It started to become daunting every time I opened up a new stage.  The puzzles were getting harder and I was always wondering if this would be “the stage” that would stump me and bring everything to a screeching halt.

My 12 year old finished too, with my encouragement.  Actually, he had to help me with some of the puzzles or I would never have finished.

The two older teens never went back to the program after ~ 7th stage.  They were finding the puzzles more difficult than rewarding to solve near the end.  I really couldn’t force them to, either.  Their lives were crazy busy with homework, music practice, sports etc.   My 8 year had reached the 10th stage. When I offered him time to work on the coding puzzles (play on the computer), his response was, “They’re hard.  I don’t really want to…”

Oops.  I hadn’t anticipated this.  I hadn’t anticipated the idea that the kids would lose motivation.  Adults? Yes.  Kids? No!   (Don’t kids just love to do anything on a computer? Actually, I was surprised to find out that the answer is “no”.)

Projects versus Puzzles

Back to the video of Mitch ResnickNatalie Rusk and Joren.  During the video, they mentioned that “learn to code” programs that focus on puzzles don’t give opportunities for students to Create.  That was the light-bulb moment for me.  I hadn’t quite put my finger on what was niggling me about puzzle programs.  As far as I knew (before I tried Scratch), there was no other way to teach kids how to code.  When the video brought up this point, I suddenly realized that I was actually worrying about what I would do if my students wanted to quit part-way too?  I could bribe them with stickers, awards or just push them along.  If I had to give them incentives, was I actually growing a group of kids that liked coding? (Heaven forbid that I was putting them off from it.)

There was a second “answer” to a question that I had not thought to ask yet (but was playing on my mind subconsciously).   I know it was pressing on me subconsciously because I felt strangely unfulfilled after the stages were finished and I had printed out my certificate.  I knew I had learned many computer science concepts, practiced many math concepts, and learned skills to program a computer to draw lines and patterns and go through mazes.  But “What now?”

The video mentioned that the puzzle challenges don’t teach what students can do afterwards. They don’t teach students about the fact they have power to Create now with these skills. “What now?”

Anyways, I’m not knocking the 20 Hour program AT ALL.  I think it does an outstanding job of scoping and sequencing programming concepts and skills in a nice linear fashion that is achievable by all.  It’s a fantastic resource for teachers who need lots of support because they don’t know a thing about coding and want “step by step” instructions for themselves and for the students. (That would be me!)  The puzzles got hard at the end, but I wouldn’t say they were impossible.  Every increment in difficulty was small and achievable with a little bit of tenacity.

I think that educators are always looking for ways of documenting and justifying the time they spend with their students.  One of the strengths of the 20 Hour program is the teacher dashboard where we can explicitly see how well our students are doing at any point of the program.  We can point to a list of concept and skill objectives they are learning (or struggling with).   When students are finished the list, they get a certificate to verify that they’ve done so. Things like these make administrators, teachers, and parents happy.

Mastery of Skills

Maslow's 2.0

Maslow’s 2.0 meme floating around the Internet.         (author unknown)


I’m going to borrow from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  (My apologies if I’m interpreting his model all wrong). I think that puzzle-types of “learn to code” programs appeal to the parts of ourselves that long for “mastery” of skills (Self-Esteem). That can go far, but not always far enough.  I was motivated to “master” the skills as I saw the rewards for mastering the skills (however far off they might be in the future). My motivation came from thoughts of finishing my Coetail project and that would bring me closer to finishing my M.S.

I’m not too sure children are interested in mastering skills if any of the enjoyment during the process falls off.   Their reward for succeeding at one puzzle was to move onto the next puzzle. That reward got old after ~50 puzzles (10 stages).  They’re not going to be motivated long by “skill-mastery” for the sake of “skill-mastery” (the age-old problem of school).  I certainly didn’t feel right about “making” my kids finish all the stages just because it was “good for them”. (I save those battles for homework and music practice 😉 )

If we’re going to use the metaphor of “floor and ceiling”, I would say that they hit the ceiling of interest, motivation, and rewards waaay before they finished the entire program.


We have a need-area that supercedes our need for “mastery”.   Maslow calls this a need for “Self-Actualization”.  Self-Actualization would include needs for personal identity and self-expression. Creation (Projects) would be considered Self-Actualization because it involves self-expression.

The need for Self-Actualization has the highest ceiling.  Maybe no ceiling, if you ask me.  If you want to create something, you need to be able to imagine it first.  There are no ceilings to your imagination. That’s why it’s called Imagination!

They say that most forms of Technology first showed up in the imagination of science-fiction writers.  Who remembers in the 1970s Captain Kirk and Spock with their “mobile cell phones” in hand?!

It’s awfully difficult to scope & sequence and bench-mark Creation and Self-Actualization. It’s awfully difficult to assess.  Perhaps that is why traditional school curriculum has found it difficult to justify its presence or to even find it useful (if being able to issue a leaving certificate is one of the main purposes of school.)

An Argument for Projects

I didn’t mean to, but I think I’ve personally experienced a huge argument for Creation in the curriculum.  (Thanks to my kids for being my guinea pigs!)  It’s the difference between causing students to peter out part-way and igniting them with enthusiasm that will take them beyond the school walls.  You see,  I’ve spent only a week on my first Scratch project. Scratch is not primarily about solving puzzles.  It’s about Creating things as a form of self-expression.  From my short foray into Scratch programming,  I honestly can’t see children ever feeling that Scratch is tedious or too hard for them!  It’s not tedious as every project is different.  If children get tired of a project, they can just start a new one.  The projects are as hard as you want to make it; it’s up to you.

Scratch has the attributes of creation in projects that were mentioned by the video:

  • Students make deeper connections if working with something they care about
  • Projects should have “low floor, high ceiling, wide walls”
  • There is no error message in Scratch… no anxiety about failing
  • It’s more exciting to find solutions to problems that you’ve discovered yourself

Skills will get you a job.  Creation will get you a passion.  (Do something you like and you’ll never work a day in your life?)

Looking Ahead

My original thought was to give my students Scratch after they finish the 20 Stages.  I’ve since decided that I will let them play with both at the same time now.   Let’s get through some of the puzzles to make the skills and concepts explicit but then let’s apply them right away in Scratch projects. 🙂  I’m so happy that I came across this Learning Creative Learning course. Thank you!

(I hope to blog about the developments of the students’ learning once they get started after Easter.)

Role of Identity

Identity falls under the category of  Self-Actualization in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The round table discussion on the video also discussed the role of Identity in computer sciences.  What are we really after when we want our students to be versed in the language of computer programming? The video discussed that we want them to be able to see the world as full of potential to be re-designed.  The whole point of programming language is that they turn ideas into tangible products that interface with the real world.  The programming language is what make the things “run”.

One of the goals (as stated by Media Lab) for teaching students to code is to produce a generation that think like designers and who find their identity in being a Designer.  We want them to be able to see design problems in the world and to dare to redesign it.  (How many of us don’t even see design problems in the world?  If we do, how many of us actually try to re-design it? Very few!)

Daring to redesign something links into the need, I would say, of teaching entrepreneurship to students in the 21st Century.

This week’s assignment

I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that our assignment this week links up with the concept of “Identity”.  This week’s assignment is to make a Scratch project that introduces ourselves.

These are the resources I used to make my first Scratch program:

  • Basic Scratch Kindle ebook by Eduardo Vlieg  This book was listed as one of the resources on the Scratch website. There are accompanying Youtube videos to his book.
  • Holiday Card tutorial by Scratch offered for the Hour of Code.  I love me a fun Christmas card!  On the righthand side (click on the question mark) is list of step by step instructions  and tutorials to build your card.

These two resources took me, in one week, from knowing nothing about Scratch to the project you see at the top of my blogpost. Music is my love and one of the big ways I express myself, so you’ll find lots of music in my program. 😀

As I was saying, the Learning Creative Learning course offered me an answer to a question (actually two questions) that I didn’t know I had:

  • What happens if students lose momentum and motivation in the middle of puzzle programs?
  • After the puzzle programs, then what?!

Stay tuned for next week’s learning.  It will be about Passion.

What do you do for Identity & Self-Expression in your life?


About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
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