Is Learning Computing Like Eating Vegetables?

March 2, 2012 at 7:36 am 12 comments

I share Geeky Mom’s concerns about students finding Scratch (Scratch?!? Really?!?) too hard, and the notion of learning computing becoming like eating vegetables. Computing is the most expressive and powerful medium that humans have ever invented — surely, it’s not brussell sprouts!

I’ve been having conversations with various students about learning Scratch. I find it really helpful just to ask for honest answers, and I love that most 8th graders will actually be honest. The main answer I get about learning Scratch is that students find it too hard. It’s too much work, they say, to get any good results. Or it’s too tedious. I find this interesting because they’ll do math and science that’s also pretty hard.

Reports abound that CS is a great field economically. Yet, it’s not filled with women. It’s also not gaining too much traction in high schools. We keep telling people that CS is “good for you” but people aren’t engaging. Is Scratch like putting ice cream on brussell sprouts? Or worse, maybe it is brussell sprouts. If that’s true, I’m not sure how to fix that. Look at what’s going on with nutrition these days. Eat your vegetables has been a mantra for years and yet, our obesity problem increases.

via Is Computing Like Eating Vegetables | Geeky Mom.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy Bruckman  |  March 2, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Interesting–thanks for posting. My own brief personal experience with Scratch was that I needed to do what the tool wants to do rather than have my own idea of what I want to do and figure out how to make it in Scratch. Maybe that’s true with any tool…

    Obviously kids are doing some incredible things with Scratch. I’d be really interested to see serious empirical research contrasting kids who find it hard and those who find it fun.

  • 2. Cecily  |  March 2, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I suspect that “vegetables” is doing exactly what the instructor tells you to do e.g. “drag the loop block here” or “write a method that takes a string as a parameter and returns a string in pig latin” whereas dessert is something more creative where the student can work to find a result that is interesting to them. e.g.” Do something interesting with a loop block” or “design a game”. My CS1 course is currently mostly vegetables for the first half and mostly dessert for the second half. A lot of the students are not so fond of the vegetables, but hope of dessert and a need to pass the class keeps them coming until part 2 which most of them love if they get there.

    • 3. Laura  |  March 5, 2012 at 9:17 am


      I pretty much throw Scratch at them. I have them create a story, a game, and an art project. I teach them a little bit more about Scratch each class period, but I never have them just create an assignment that’s move here, make a loop, etc. They just have to do those things as they’re making their projects.

  • 4. Alan Kay  |  March 2, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Is learning to read like eating vegetables?

    Is learning anything that isn’t more or less wired into our DNA like eating vegetables?

    “Most ideas are mediocre down to bad” — in other words, humans have been “creating” like mad for 200,000 years, mostly to little avail and no little disaster.

    So the real question for real education is how to get people (especially children) to hang in there on the hard stuff and be able to put in the hours that are required for fluency.

    What we should care about in a system like Scratch or Etoys is (a) whether there are difficulties that are not needed, and (b) whether they can cover enough of important and interesting problem spaces?

    My verdict on both of these is that they are not perfect wrt either (a) or (b) but can work really well in the restricted domains for which they were designed.

    I think we need a new kind of system for more general use in K-12 …



  • 5. Garth  |  March 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

    My kids do not want to leave Scratch. We go to Small Basic for the second half of the semester. The kids do not like it as much because they cannot write cool little games. Some kids think Scratch is veggies, some think it is cake and ice cream.

  • […] Is Learning Computing Like Eating Vegetables? ( […]

  • 7. Bonnie  |  March 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    My kids, ages 10 and 12, are addicted to Scratch and Alice. But they have never taken an official course in either – they just dive in and create. My older son, in particular, has done some nice computer science-y things in Scratch. It isn’t all like vegetables for him – more like ice cream

  • 8. Seth Chaiken  |  March 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I’ve found both Scratch and Alice frustratingly limiting in college when I tried to use them in an intro CS course for non-major honors students. I’ve also found in teaching non-major Alice and Myro/Python courses that many students respond positively to easy creative things (especially when done in teams) but that does not lead them automatically to harder things, like conditionally controlled loops, accumulating variables and conditionals. Beyond that, Alice and Scratch, not Python of course, both make array use clumsy or impossible, contravening the need to cover arrays in CS1
    to express great ideas like binary search.

    I wanted to demonstrate how the moving Alice figure could draw like a turtle (to expand into projects, of course)…and the only way I found was to have her hold a pile of objects and throw them one by one on the ground periodically! (Maybe Alice 3 does better, but I haven’t looked).

  • 9. Bonnie  |  March 3, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I’m liking Greenfoot for my college intro course. I use it to ease the students into OO concepts and terminology. I would not use Scratch at the college level. I think it is really for middle school through high school.

    • 10. Seth Chaiken  |  March 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

      Thanks for mentioning that! I’ll give it another look and get a review copy of Michael Kölling’s text. What texts (if any) do you use?

      • 11. Michael Kadri  |  March 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm


        I teach high school and have used Alice, Java with Karel, Python with Rurple (like Karel) and Java with Greenfoot. I use Greenfoot with older students. So for college non majors , I think Greenfoot would be more interesting and challenging. The only published textbook so far is Michael Kolling’s, which is very good. Also as an instructor you can join the Greenroom where instructors discuss and share resources including slides and projects.


  • 12. Bonnie MacKellar  |  March 4, 2012 at 8:15 am

    I use the Kolling text. We teach a “kinda-late-objects” Java intro sequence. What I do is spend several weeks doing the standard control flow stuff in straight Java. Then we digress into several weeks of Greenfoot, where they get to use the control flow stuff to do fun things, and also learn in a more visceral way what object-oriented design is about. It is easier to teach terms like “method” and “parameter” when we are also talking about crabs scurrying about. Eventually, we return to standard Java, but it makes the OO part seem more real to the students. I’ve gotten a lot of positive comments on Greenfoot in the course evals, though I have not done any formal assessment of learning gains.


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