After-school Code Club – Lifelong Kindergarten?

After my first term volunteering to start an after-school Code Club in a public library, one of the challenges we’ve been grappling with is how to keep activities roughly on task and progressing coding skills, without being at all teacherly.

Helping me in this new journey, has been an awesome librarian who also leads library Makerspace activities. At the same time, that we’ve been working through Scratch projects, I’ve been reading Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick. It’s a book with superb relevance to finding a way to approach coding after school, in a way that feels right.

If you are not yet familiar with Mitch Resnick’s work at MIT, and his role as LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, part of his work has been developing the visual programming language and platform, Scratch.

The title might give the impression that the book is focused on early years learning, but don’t overlook this book because you think you’re all grown up and serious about code.  Resnick is proposing that kindergarten-style learning should never stop. It’s for anyone teaching kids to code, including parents and grandparents and especially sensible adults who get a little bit too serious about code.

After a stirring foreword by Sir Ken Robinson, Lifelong Kindergarten begins by introducing a simple but powerful iterative thinking pattern, the Creative Learning Spiral, described as the “engine of creative thinking”.

Resnick examines this approach to creative learning through four aspects: Projects, Passion, Peers and Play.

Whilst early childhood educators might feel at home alongside play-based themes, Resnick’s key assertion that this approach is relevant for adult learners too, as an approach to lifelong learning.

The book includes the story of the Computer Clubhouse movement that emerged in the US and documents real experiences.  The whole book is extremely relevant to educators, but also anyone involved in informal education which could include after-school or out of school hours centres, educational institutions or community centres.

I felt as though the book guided our Code Club experiences and led to an idea I might not otherwise had been brave enough to try.

Projects

In Term 1 of our Code Club, we’ve been using  Code Club Australia projects which are mapped to the Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum. As our Code Club is held in a public library, we needed creative projects with wide appeal to children with a range of previous experience with code. Those who attend are from traditional public and private schools, Waldolf/Steiner schools and homeschooled children, from ages six and upwards.

Some children code with a parent, whilst others don’t.  Projects start the group off together in a quest to build something.  Being built invisibly all around the room is the creativity to see beyond the project.

Drawn together through a project, coding friendships emerge by encouraging children to verbally debug their own code, test each other’s projects and exclaim enthusiasms and design ideas out loud.

Passion

I have always loved “passion” as an expression of learning because it seems immeasurable.

Resnick points out:

“In today’s data-obsessed world, some people think that everything can be quantitatively measured, if we just figure out the right data to collect.”

In our Code Club, whilst we intentionally encourage deviation from the project, there are participants and parents who have inclinations to follow the instructions step by step too.  Some take on the extra challenges, others don’t.

Sometimes a child will declare at the start of the session that they don’t want to do the project.  They will open Scratch and start making something else. Or another child might play games on Scratch for the whole hour, stepping inside briefly to peer in awe at the code.

This might look like disengagement, from a teacherly perspective. Or messy chaos trying to facilitate a group that all end up at different destinations. If you were using platform logs to measure how much time spent using the project resources or what was produced by the end of the session, things might look off-track.

But this messy chaos is passion-led.  I saw a child discover books through the projects they have found on Scratch.  After Code Club, he immediately ran off to the library shelves with other Club attendees, borrowing books. That step of following a passion back into a more traditional media form can’t be easily measured.

Peers

Watching kids coming back to the Club voluntarily, feels as though it is fuelled by pure peer-power more than projects. Creative friendships emerge easily because the underlying pedagogical design of the Scratch platform supports the community.

After a few weeks of Code Club, there was a quiet excited whisper to me. A new Code Club attendee had discovered that someone a few tables away had made a Scratch project based on some of her favourite books.  She quietly hopped into the code to see how it had been made and then left a comment.

In these beginning exchanges, are a microcosm of future peer collaboration and ways of working enabled by technology that they will continue to navigate in their future. These are explored in Resnick’s book in the ideas of complementary pairs, extended teams, subcommunities, feedback studios and consulting services.

Play

Initially, I felt worried about how to guarantee “fun” when we had instructions and projects. We didn’t have any ‘gear’ to offer our Code Club as rewards and motivators. Would this feel like school? How do we encourage “good” coding practices?

Although at first I felt that I should encourage a neat and tidy approach to using the backpack in Scratch, I felt my thinking shift.

Resnick explains in his chapters on play, that you can see Scratch as a playground, much like LEGO, as a place to tinker on-screen. What is made may be messy and wild.

I’ve started to see Scratch backpacks stuffed with code blocks and sprites in the same way a kindergartener collects their pockets full of feather and pebbles treasures.

How do we know if our Code Club is successful?

I hope we never know. Resnick suggests instead of trying to measure learning, to document it. This made me think of approaches like floor-books in kindergartens.

I’ve started a journal of Code Club learning observations like a field journal.  Just simple note, like this extract:

Today I saw a child make a giant leap from just how to make variables in Scratch, to discovering why there are useful. He had encountered variables in a previous project. However, something was different this time. Was it because he was now working on his own idea and laughing with the person next to him about funny his animation ideas were? I heard in his expression a sense of urgency to get his own ideas into a form he could show to his new friend.  He was speaking out aloud about having to “write all that code again” and then exclaimed that he could find the code he had done in another project. When he looked into the project, he found a variable he had created, and named, and also discovered he could actually use the whole block of code again. He had moved onto the idea of reusing threads of code based on his own idea.

Mitch Resnick’s book Lifelong Kindergarten became my surprise guide on the side, for how to be a guide on side during Code Club.  It gave me courage to imagine our own final collaborative creative project, inspired by Resnick’s final chapter on the big-picture concept of Creative Society. I hope our final project links our local efforts with existing creative expression around us in the library. I have no idea if the final project we imagine and create will work. We will just play and share, then reflect and start to imagine it yet again.

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