To Scratch or not to Scratch?!

Plugged or unplugged?

There is a lot to be said about how to teach programming, and a lot it said, also by me 🙂 One of the questions is whether we should start programming on the computer immediately, or start with programming lesson without the computers, also called unplugged.

And of course I also like to measure things rather than just talking about them! This is why we set out to do an experiment around plugged versus unplugged programming. We wanted to understand whether using unplugged materials first impacts:

  1. how well children learn programming concepts
  2. how confident children are of their programming abilities (i.e. how hight their “self-efficacy” is)
  3. how big their Scratch vocabulary is

Plugged or unplugged first?

Before I elaborate on the details of the study, I want to make it clear what we will and will not study. We are not comparing entirely unplugged lessons to lessons on the computer. We are measuring the starting with 4 weeks of programming unplugged, versus starting with the computer straight away. 

The lessons were given to children from one local elementary school, Dutch grades 6 to 8, which means children aged 9 to 12. In total, 35 children from the three grades participated. We started with an introductory week for all children in which they got to know Scratch a little bit. We then split the group into two random groups, balancing ages and gender over the groups.

The, one group (17) got 4 weeks on unplugged lessons, for which we adapted lessons from CS Unplugged.  The other group (18) started programming in Scratch straight away, using the lessons of my online course for children. Both the plugged and the unplugged lessons covered the same programming concepts: loops, conditionals, procedures, broadcasts, parallelization and variables.

After these four weeks, both groups received two weeks of Scratch lessons, practicing Scratch programming in more depth. In these lessons, we repeat the concepts we taught in the first four weeks. For the unplugged group, we designed one special lesson that connects the concepts as they used them unplugged to concepts in Scratch. After these two weeks, two more weeks follow in which children create their own games in Scratch.

At the end of the eight weeks the children we measure children’s programming skills in two ways:

  1. with an endterm test in which we assess children’s understanding and correct use of programming concepts in Scratch
  2. by looking at their end projects

Is starting with unplugged better?

Yes, but not in they way you might think!

If we look at our three research questions, we find that:

  1. There is no impact on how well children learn programming concepts, both groups demonstrated a similar mastery of programming
  2. But… children that worked unplugged first were more confident about their programming abilities than the children that worked with Scratch all the time
  3. And, the children that worked unplugged first used more Scratch blocks than the children that worked with Scratch all the time!

Especially that last point surprised us, but it might be related with the fact that these children feel more confident, so they also dared to explore Scratch more independently. This is confirmed by the fact that they explored more blocks that we did not cover in the course material:

Want to read more? The full paper is available too!


1 Comment

  1. David Cuccia

    Fantastic, thank you for sharing. I appreciate all you’ve done to better understand/debunk how we think about learning programming.

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