Scratching for an Education: “Simple But Not Easy”
Review of Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick

by David Longman. 20 Oct 2017


Resnick, Mitchel. 2017.
Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play.
MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/lifelong-kindergarten


At first, I was disappointed with Mitchel Resnick’s new book ‘Lifelong Kindergarten’. I had expected to read more about the genesis and development of Scratch along with other interesting background about the brilliant work of the Lifelong Kindergarten group led by Mitchel Resnick. Yes, a lot of that is in there though somewhat incidentally; it did not seem central to the book I was expecting and I was puzzled.

I put it aside for a day or two after I decided that this was yet another homily about the stultification of ‘natural’ human learning caused by organised but inauthentic schooling.  Worthy but not new and at 200 pages with a lot of white space it promised a relaitvely light read.

It’s all there in the book’s title. The four P’s? Cultivating creativity? Kindergarten? But this is Mitchel Resnick! Lego/Logo, Starlogo, Computer Clubhouses, Scratch!

I have to pay attention. Then after reading on a few more pages I realise that is probably one of the most interesting and practical books I have read for a while.

Far from disappointing after all.

Resnick describes a framework for learning that is well grounded in many years experience, has generated some stunning learning resources (all free to use), and has consistently pursued important core values about how we learn.

But if you are looking for useful ideas or examples of programming with Scratch you won’t find any in this book. If you are unfamiliar with Scratch itself, or its huge online community, this book will not help directly with that. The best way to know more is to play with Scratch, to sign on to the Scratch community to see what’s occurring and perhaps, as you become a Scratcher you might upload your own beginner project.

On the other hand it’s a useful and practical text because what we have here is really a curriculum planning framework. And wherever schools and curriculum developers are concerned about how to embed ‘digital literacy’ into their curriculum time this book could provide a solid framework for action.

Wherever? That would be pretty much all schools across the UK then! For example, Wales is now undertaking curriculum reform which begins with building their ‘digital competence framework’ (DCF). Unlike the English reforms, the DCF does not grow out of a Computer Science mindset (as took place in England) but out of the ambition to build a deep and valuable cross-curricular competence. The possibilities suggested by Resnick’s book seem particularly opportune.

This is no rhetorical call to creative, project-based learning centred on the learners’ motivations and interests. While the four P’s – Project, Passion, Peers and Play – may seem simplistic they lock together. It’s hard to take one without losing the virtues of other elements. They form core components of the Creative Learning Spiral an explicit link to Froebel who Resnick characterises as a progenitor of the Lifelong Kindergarten approach to (computer-based) learning. Froebel of course is famous for his influence on the way that society thought about children and their education, which should be designed for children to learn through playful, exploratory activities.

However, this book does assume at least a passing knowledge of the online Scratch community, as well as some grasp of how Scratch itself is used. Some readers might be less than satisfied that Resnick provides only ‘soft’ qualitative evidence about the effectiveness and outcomes of his kindergarten approach. He makes use of participant interviews, one to close each chapter, and many anecdotes of selected Scratch projects or events to illustrate the 4Ps at work. There is also an understandable tendency towards over-enthusiasm which, though motivational, might make put some readers on the defensive:

“That’s the kind of people that Scratch is growing, and I honestly think scratchers are going to change the world, seriously.” (p29)

There isn’t much of that kind of hyperbole, fortunately. Anyway, Resnick is something of a digital visionary who has put in the time so, as far as this reviewer is concerned, he has earned his rapture!

Placed alongside the realities and the politics of ensuring a well-funded, and properly organised and equally distributed education system with a curriculum for all, and given the policy climate in the UK the Scratch kindergarten would have to work hard for its place in our curricula at primary and lower secondary phases of schooling. In favour of adoption Resnick points out that even nations with a high PISA ranking are concerned that their results also highlight deficiencies in the range and quality of their provision. At the same time, UK policy shows few signs of reducing its reliance on selectivity and other reforms aimed at boosting the UK position in PISA rankings.

To achieve this, argues Resnick (and here he touches the zeitgeist in contemporary debates about schooling) we should at least diminish managerial approaches to teaching and learning and reduce our reliance on high stakes assessment and accountability. There is a fair bit of sweeping generalisation this sort of critique which is not really all that helpful although Resnick is right to warn us to think carefully about the options, for example, the risk that other forms of computer-based education may come to dominate the process of curriculum change, particularly those that aim to make current practices more ‘efficient’ through various forms of algorithmic personalisation.

It would be good enough if the Scratch software is all we have. However, what emerges clearly from reading this book is that for Resnick it is the community of practice behind Scratch that is a significant catalyst for learning. Of all the P’s in this book, peer learning within the online community may be the most important part of this model of computational learning. As Resnick recognises, it is the social affordance of technology that has changed profoundly since the pre-Internet days of Papert’s Logo, the early work with Lego and the Computer Clubhouse.

If teachers and students do not participate in the online community will they miss important opportunities for making learning more interesting, creative and fun? For Resnick the answer has to be ‘yes’ and while there is nothing to say against the use of small-scale local, perhaps school-based online communities, why would you do that? The Scratch community is free to join and has a large number of active members (for some usage statistics see here). There are few, if any, infrastructure issues for schools and teachers to be concerned about (apart from good Internet access from with the school). The Scratch community is a ‘managed service’ with its own dedicated staff (see here) who provide technical management as well as community standards which are monitored and enforced, gently but strictly.  For example, limits are placed on ‘gamification’, e.g. users can’t compete for whose project gets the most hits; remixing of any project is allowed and there is no opt-out; offensive posts are not allowed and are removed (with an explanation).

Thus, at the school level only a small additional investment of time and resource is needed to participate in Scratch and since the introduction of teacher accounts teachers, departments and schools can manage and monitor in-school signups. That is not to say that setting up and running some sort of ‘kindergarten’ community of practice within a wider curriculum would be cost-free and without effort. But it is worth trying.

The real value of this book lies in the recipe it offers (the 4 Ps)  along with some key ingredients such as Scratch, the online community, hundreds of stimulus resources, and useful guidance on the role of the teacher-mentor (e.g see Ch.6). Quite how they are put together is an open experiment and one that our schools could take on. After all, that is the nature of recipes – some actions are required, others are optional or flexible, and you don’t always have to start at the beginning of the list. Resnick calls this ‘wide walls’ and is a simple but important addition to Papert’s design maxim: “low threshold – high ceiling”. Projects can have many starti.

One key proviso: on its face the model seems simple. However, putting the model into practice with particular students in particular times and places takes time, effort and perseverance and, in true Maker style, a willingness to iterate the curriculum design. Curriculum change is not a ‘five minute job’. If something like the Lifelong Kindergarten approach can be made to scale across a region (if not an entire nation) then progress has been made. But, Resnick reminds us, quoting Dewey, such an approach is “simple but not easy”.

Buy this book, study it and put something like it into practice. This is a recipe, not an algorithm, so there are many variations a professional could come up with, adjusting and adapting the mix as experience is built up over time. It’s a creative spiral after all.

 

Follow-up

“How does a bird flock keep its movements so graceful and synchronized? Most people assume that the bird in front leads and the others follow. In fact, bird flocks don’t have leaders: they are organized without an organizer, coordinated without a coordinator. And a surprising number of other systems, from termite colonies to traffic jams to economic systems, work the same decentralized way. Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams describes innovative new computational tools that can help people (even young children) explore the workings of such systems–and help them move beyond the centralized mindset.”

The substance of this earlier essay forms part of the new book.

“StarLogo TNG is a client-based modeling and simulation software. It facilitates the creation and understanding of simulations of complex systems. Its 3-D graphics, sound, blocks-based interface and keyboard input make StarLogo a great tool for programming educational video games.”

Starlogo never seems to have had much impact. Ideally suited to higher level work in various subject areas from biology, through ecology to economics. Built on the same sort of blocks design as Scratch, Starlogo is an experiment-in-waiting particularly at upper secondary and tertiary levels.

See also Netlogo: https://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/

NetLogo is a programmable modeling environment for simulating natural and social phenomena. It was authored by Uri Wilensky in 1999 and has been in continuous development ever since at the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling.”

I suppose you could describe NetLogo as a more structured version of the Starlogo idea. It is reminiscent of earlier version of modelling tools such as Stella where buttons, sliders, connectors etc. could be combined to make sophisticated models of various kinds of system.

Not a lot of people remember that the author of NetLogo, Uri Wilensky, was with Papert when, in 2006, he was hit hard by a moped while they were crossing a busy junction in Hanoi. The story that arose almost immediately around this factoid, has poetic truth and an urban-legend quality. It’s also a touching tribute to Papert the scientist at work, even as the work itself crashed into him! Read it here.

A more prosaic account is here. It highlights the issue of traffic volume and chaos that blights Hanoi (and many other cities around the world): http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2006/12/17/caught_in_the_swarm/