Careers with STEM caught up with Mitch Resnick, the inventor of Scratch, in a wide-ranging Q&A to talk play-based learning, philosophy, programming and the importance of peers.
In conversation with Mitch Resnick, founder of Scratch
Heather Catchpole, Director of Refraction Media (HC): What’s your vision for the classroom of the future?
I think the most important things aren’t so much the technology itself, but the approach to learning.
We’ll probably still be trying to do 50 years from now what we are today, that is, to figure out how is it that we can provide opportunities for children to engage in creative activities and develop as creative thinkers?
And, in some ways (American philosopher and educational reformer) John Dewey was talking about this a hundred years ago. I think technology could provide us with some new avenues to help people develop as creative thinkers, but I think the real challenges are how we organise the learning environment.
The way that I sometimes frame this is through this four guiding principles of Projects, Passions, Peers, and Play. And, in some ways it’s new terminology, but it’s the same types of things that mathematician and educator Seymour Papert was arguing for 50 years ago. And the challenge is how to put it into practice.
Technology enhances the opportunities for engaging in a project-based approach to connect with more areas of knowledge that we think are important for kids to engage with. So, for me, the core ideas of Project, Passion, Peers, and Play will continue to be important.
They were important 50 years ago, today, and 50 years from now, and the questions is: How can we leverage new technologies to better support those things?
On flexibility and diversity in technology
HC: There are now 40 million projects on Scratch, with 30,000 uploaded everyday, yet they all all so different! How important is it to have that kind of flexibility in technology to enable us to be creative thinkers?
Mitch Resnick: We think that flexibility and diversity is incredibly important.
One of our big goals with Scratch is to engage kids as creative thinkers and to engage all kids. You have to be able to connect with kids from different backgrounds, different interests, different learning styles, so it’s always been a high priority of ours to support kids work on a wide variety of projects.
We get most excited about the Scratch online community, not because there’s 40 million projects, but because there’s such diversity among those 40 million projects. Because, to us, that’s an indicator that kids are doing things where they are using their imagination and thinking creatively. So, that’s always a higher priority for us than learning specific STEM concepts. For me, the most important thing for kids to learn, today, is to learn to think and act creatively, and to be able to use these new tools to express themselves creatively and to think creatively.
On spanning multiple careers
HC: In your career paths, you have worked in journalism, in education, in software, and robotics. How did that come about?
Mitch Resnick: Because I had no idea what I would be doing!
HC: I love hearing that! I think kids need to hear that.
Mitch Resnick: Most things we do in life requires a lot more tinkering, where you try something, it doesn’t quite work, you change a little bit and try it out again and change it again: whether you’re writing an article as a journalist or writing a program in Scratch or developing a marketing plan in a business.
Usually, you try something and it doesn’t quite work, and you iteratively refine it.
And, I think life is that way, as well. So, you just keep iteratively refining things. You come up with a new idea, it doesn’t quite work out, you try something else.
For myself, I did enjoy Math and Science growing up. So, I majored in physics in college, but at the end of college, I didn’t want to go on in that, because somehow I wasn’t capturing my excitement, even though I had always done well on it in school, it’s not what I was feeling passionate about. But, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. So, I had written for my college newspaper, so I decided that well, maybe, I could write about Science and Technology, combining some different interests.
On the future of education
HC: Where do you see the future of education going?
Mitch Resnick: I look at the traditional Kindergarten, where you often will see kids playfully creating things in collaboration with one another, creating towers out of blocks, or making pictures with finger paints and crayons, and in the process of playfully creating things together, kids learn a lot.
They learn about structure and stability when they make towers out of blocks. But most importantly, they learn about the creative process, they learn how to start with an idea, to create something, to keep revising it based on experimenting and playing with it and getting ideas from other people.
And, I think that really leads to kids developing as creative thinkers. They learn how to express themselves creatively and to think creatively by going through that creative process.
Too often, after Kindergarten, kids spend a lot of time filling out worksheets, listening to lectures, which is not as good a way to continue to develop as a creative thinker. And, unfortunately, even in many Kindergartens today, kids are using math flashcards to learn arithmetic and drilling on phonics lessons for learning about reading.
So, in many places, Kindergarten’s becoming more like the rest of school. And, what I think needs to happen is exactly the reverse – for the rest of school and for the rest of life to become more like Kindergarten, where people can learn from playfully creating things in collaboration with one another through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. And, in that way, develop as creative thinkers.
For a teacher to support that type of project-based approach, the teacher can’t just be standing at the front delivering instruction or delivering information. The teacher does have to take on new roles, so there’s a shifting mindset in how we think about the learning process, and it’s much more the teacher acting as a catalyst of sparking ideas and a coach of giving advice as things are going on; as a collaborator of working together with kids.
On career coaching
HC: I love the idea of a coach, because there’s a sense there that you have responsibility for your own learning. If you want to be the best player, it’s up to you. Your coach will tell you ideas, but it’s up to you to do that yourself, and I think that sense of being responsible for your own success is a really nice idea.
Are these ideas are applicable to the world of work? We talk about how people are changing careers much more often nowadays. They might be in 17 different job areas, eight different career fields. People are talking about developing STEM skills and how the skills are relevant. What would you say are the essential skills that we need for the future of work?
Mitch Resnick: Well, I do think the type of approaches that we use in schools with Projects, Passions, Peers, and Play to help kids develop as creative thinkers has become ever more important in the workplace, probably because with the changes in the workplace, with things changing so quickly, and so many new things happening all of the time, the ability to think and act creatively is more important than ever before.
As new technology is taking over many routine tasks, the tasks that are still needed to be done are ones that require more creative thinking.
So, I think it’s always been important to have creativity in the workplace, but even more important, now, because an ever-growing percentage of the jobs will require creative thinking, so helping people continue to develop as creative thinkers is going to be essential for success in the workplace in the future.
But, I also think it’s going to be essential for happiness throughout your whole life.
I encourage the development of creative thinking, not just because it’s going to lead to better opportunities in the workplace, although it will, but also because becoming a creative thinker can bring joy and meaning and purpose in life.
And, I think everybody deserves that. So, I think it’s both. It’s an economic imperative, but, also, it’s a humanistic opportunity to let people live full and fulfilling lives.
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs