A few days ago I asked for volunteers to read a book I was writing on programming, using Scratch, MIT’s visual, event-driven, programming environment.
I have not yet had any volunteers, though the flurry of online interest did get me to complete the first draft – so alpha testers still needed.
In the meantime, I have also published the version of Conway’s Game of Life the text is based around. It’s a slightly unusual implementation in that the surface of the game is
, in effect, spherical in effect a torus – i.e. the edges are effectively a feature of the projection of the surface but left joins to right, top to bottom and so on.
Update: Been pointed out to me that this isn’t a sphere but a torus, and so I have updated the copy.
Programming is being (re-)introduced in English primary schools as part of the reformulated National Curriculum and this is certainly A Good Thing.
One worry, though, is whether there are enough teachers with the basic skills in programming needed to teach. I am pretty certain there are not: hence the importance of volunteer schemes such as “Code Club”.
I think there is scope for a text that gives teachers some familiarity with key programming concepts, using MIT’s Scratch language/environment and so I am making a stab at writing such a text for electronic distribution.
Let’s see how far I get.
Regular readers will know I have something of a small obsession with Conway’s Game of Life – the classic “game for no players” based on cellular automata, and so, naturally enough, when I decided that I really had to write my own Scratch program from, err, scratch to sharpen up my skills for teaching children via Code Club, that is what I chose to write – the (not very sophisticated) results can be seen above.
My first conclusion is that Scratch is a truly awful tool for most programming tasks. I know it is not meant to be a general programming tool, but I quickly discovered that it is hobbled even when it comes to doing those things that one assumes, at first glance, it is set up to do – like drawing on the screen. Scratch actually has very, very limited functionality/expressive power when it comes to drawing graphics – being only able to handle pre-provided sprites (as first class objects) and using a pen which marks out one pixel at a time – thus one cannot (at least easily) find a way to draw anything beyond dots and lines on the screen in response to events.
If you run the above program using the Flash player provided by the Scratch site you will probably see one of the big downsides of that as outlines of the old crosses are left on the screen (the Java player does not have this problem but it is very slow in comparison).
From a teaching point of view I also find Scratch’s message-based system less helpful than an imperative
GOSUB like approach: the children I work with, after many weeks, are still struggling with the idea that messages should drive actions (probably we should blame their instructor!) – I know this event-based style is more common in the real world, but I think teaching the idea of problem decomposition via subroutines or functions is probably more important educationally.
Yesterday I went to the first London Hackntalk and gave an impromptu (and so unprepared) and brief talk on my thoughts about teaching children to program – my experience with Code Club makes me rather less starry-eyed about mass programming education. There were a few responses from the audience which suggested I had not really got my point – that we would struggle to fully replace an ICT curriculum based on usage skills with one based on programming – as the audience continually suggested ways to get motivated and engaged kids into programming (rather than make it a mass participation thing), but one point that was made by a member of the audience was very acute – given what our children see computers do in games that cost many millions to develop, how realistic is it to expect all or many of them to put lots of effort into toy programs that chug out the sort of graphics you can see above? I think that is a really difficult issue we have to consider when overhauling the curriculum and I am not sure the enthusiasts of radical change (of which I was and still am one) have thought it through fully.
(I did also encourage them to be Code Club instructors and was a bit disappointed to see that I appeared to be the only one – we urgently need to teach more programming and so these problems of the early days of the overhaul should not obscure the need for change.)
I decided I wanted to write “Conway’s Game of Life” in Scratch (I am sure somebody else will have done this, but that’s not the point).
What a nightmare. Enough to make me rethink my views on Scratch’s usefulness as a teaching tool.
More to follow when I have actually finished it – tomorrow evening I hope.