Scratching the Surface 

hacklabGuest Blog: HackLab co-founder ‘Mr C’ shares his thoughts on the current scope of technical education for under 16s, and what makes the HackLab approach so different…

I’m sure by now that most parents in the UK have heard of Scratch – the excellent bit of educational software created by that famous and vaunted OG Hacker Cabal; MIT. But is it actually the best tool for teaching our kids when it comes to programming?


It’s certainly an exceptional piece of software for getting your kids started with thinking in abstractions, building algorithms and getting to think about logic. It’s free, online and pretty much the very first bit of kit your kids will come into contact with in their journey through the Computing curriculum they are now taught at school as part of their ‘balanced intellectual diet.’ (Coining It!)

But is it the best tool for teaching our children programming? Not really, no. 

Don’t get me wrong; I love Scratch. In the early days of HackLab, back in 2014, Scratch was the first thing I put kids on when they came to us. It’s still the tool we recommend to all our junior hackers (and their parents) to play around with at home when they first take courses at HackLab. It’s bright, colourful and fairly powerful for all its simplicity, but most of all it’s easy to understand (because the geniuses at MIT clearly understand how a kid’s thinking works). The colours aren’t just to make it look pretty; they are related to how the commands operate within your program. They’ve taken a very complex idea and made a brilliant game of it; an intuitive, educational and entertaining game.

However; by the time they come to us these days, children have usually already interacted with scratch, either at school (if not, you should be asking your headteacher why that is) or at a friend’s house. Maybe they use it at home in their free time. Basically; since the inception of the Computing Curriculum a couple of years ago, pretty much every school age kid in the UK has used or come into contact with it.

They already understand how it works and what it is. 

We’ve found in the last 3 years that the basic level of understanding shown by an 8 year old has risen dramatically across the computing curriculum. (Some of our courses which used to be full days are now 2 hour workshops, for example!) So dramatically in fact, that the school curriculum as it stands now seems a little behind – those with aptitude find it hard being catered for in their schools and many already have the base level of understanding required for outcomes rated well above their age/year.

What’s holding schools back?

It’s not easy to create an extension program for willing and gifted kids in Computer Science, unless you happen to have the money to buy a curriculum, or you are lucky enough to employ a proper programmer as your ICT lead. Scratch is now being used as a crutch for underfunded, understaffed schools who find it hard to create, or expensive to purchase, good quality curricular materials for use in the classroom. But there are multiple options for complete coding curricula available for free online at places like Kahn Academy and Raspberry Pi have some excellent projects for kids to try using their platform as well. So what’s holding schools back?

The difficulty is that while these systems teach coding in a sequential and self-driven way, it’s always better to have someone knowledgeable in the classroom to help you understand those parts that seem a little complicated or obtuse. It’s definitely better to have someone with you who can talk you through your mistakes and help you correct them at the point of delivery. Think about it this way: teachers have been around for centuries (and used to get way more respect than they currently do, by the way) – but if self-learning is the best and most efficient option, we’d only have librarians today!

Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of educators who are experienced enough with digital making and programming to be the requisite ‘confident authority’ in the classroom, which is concurrently causing teachers to shy away from teaching something on which they don’t feel themselves an authority. (Think about how daunting it would be if I asked you to teach medieval Russian poetry to a group of Russian speakers…do you speak any Russian? No? Studied much ancient poetry? Bummer. Teach them anyway… here’s the course book: teach yourself first.)

Because many teachers lack of exposure to coding, schools are often stuck teaching staid lessons to children who have already exceeded them. This is not how you create enthusiastic, creative digital citizens.

Our solution.

At Hacklabs, we try a different approach. We now run courses at the FBC on Saturdays, where we teach kids to create interactive stories (like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books with sound, images, animation and an inventory that keeps track of your story items) in HTML – all of them started on Scratch, but quickly moved past it into other languages and contexts that interested them. HackLab groups kids based on their ability and effort, rather than their ‘date of manufacture’ as Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently put it. Our courses are ‘levelled’ in the sense of a video game: complete enough L1 courses, earn enough XP, attack some Level 2 missions, get smarter.

Unfortunately, the ‘batch method’ of education in the UK often means that students are left to churn away on Scratch for years, instead of moving on to more complex and practical programming activities.

It’s the Scratch conundrum: we are hitting the outcomes mandated by Ofsted, but are we educating our kids at the right pace and level, or are we holding them back?

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences on facebook and twitter @ftrbusiness #Scratch

HackLab’s coding courses are for children aged 8-16, and run at the Future Business Centre on Saturday mornings, learn more or register your child here for next term

Got your own idea to improve #teched in the UK or further afield? Come talk to Serious Impact about turning your idea into a business.


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