Starting from @Scratch: (Re)thinking visual programming

Several years ago, I started my exploration of Scratch coding with a group of highly motivated students who were happy to dive in, figure out how it worked, and answer my questions – which typically started with “How on earth did you do …?” We went on a learning journey together, and considering that I didn’t really know what I was doing, it is quite surprising how far we managed to travel.

Fast forward to 2017, the first year that we had to assess and formally report on our students’ understanding of, and application of visual programming. I spent my Christmas holidays teaching myself Scratch, drawing upon tutorials published by MakeBlock, and any resources I could find on the Internet. I delved into event blocks, loops, IF/THEN branching, and tried to work out which Scratch skills should be taught at each year level. I was fairly sure I understood the content; and based on my experiences teaching Scratch in our after-school/lunchtime clubs, I thought I knew how to teach it. The assessment was still a grey area, but that wasn’t going to stop me diving in and attempting to teach Scratch coding to all students from Years 4-6 for the first time.

Teaching Scratch Game Design

As part of my new STEM and robotics teaching role, I have been teaching a Scratch game design course in Year 6. Term 1 proved to be rather challenging. The sheer scope of students’ skills and past exposure to Scratch, ranging from absolute beginner to extremely advanced, were hard to differentiate for. In addition, this was the first time many of these students experienced my approach to teaching Scratch, which relied heavily on the use of online learning videos and tutorials shared via YouTube and Google Classroom. While some students produced some extraordinary games like the one above, there was signficant room for improvement.

For the Term 2 unit, I decided to explicitly teach and demonstrate some Scratch skills, running 5-10 minute mini lessons and demonstrations of the use of event blocks, loops, and IF/THEN branching. Students then had opportunities to delve further, using differentiated Scratch tutorial cards to learn more about Scratch. During one of these sessions, a question started to arise.

When designing a maze game, students need to work out how to control their character sprite movements using the WASD and/or arrow keys. I was pointing the girls in the general direction of using IF/THEN branching blocks (aka conditionals) for their arrow key controls, but we kept encountering problems … Firstly, the IF/THEN block ran once when triggered by an event block; and secondly, the colour sensing (for maze walls) didn’t seem to work properly.

Problem solved?

Putting everything in a forever loop seemed to work. It used a single script, and in my mind at least, was a “logical” solution. Yet, I was struggling to understand, let alone explain, this question: Why did the IF/THEN blocks have to be in a forever loop in order to work?”

Uncovering a fundamental misunderstanding …

Standing on the train station platform one morning, I found myself revisiting, and pondering this question. It occurred to me that I actually knew someone in the programming industry who might actually be able to provide an answer in terms I could understand.

My longtime friend and programming expert can be best described as a maths geek with an incredibly logical mind. He specialises in developing software controlling LED signs, such as animated city carpark signs which tell you how many bays remain, and bus stand information displays somewhere in New Zealand. To this day, I still enjoy teasing him when his little dots don’t work, including the time his code was used to display terrible Christmas decorations on a city carpark sign. Anyway, I digress …

As I hopped on the train, my friend replied to my Twitter message, kindly pointing out that “IF/THEN branches did NOT need to be in any kind of loop in order to work”. After reviewing his suggested reading links on the Scratch wiki, it became apparent that I had a serious gap in my understanding of the underlying logic and structures of the Scratch visual programming language.


A whirlwind professional learning experience

For all my research and experimentation with Scratch over the years, I’d missed something that should have been blindingly obvious. Scratch reflects the logic and syntax of a formal, event-based programming languages, and includes events, and structures such as branching (IF/THEN conditionals) and repeat loops. To my chagrin, I’d been seriously muddling up my teaching of events and IF/THEN branching.

Meeting up with my friend for coffee a few days later, I began what was to become a whirlwind professional learning experience. We spent hours talking through programming concepts, examining and evaluating example Scratch projects, and discussing the best way to introduce and develop students’ visual programming skills at different year levels. The conversations continued via Twitter for weeks, and I’m just starting to feel like I can comprehend and apply what I’ve learned.  

Visual programming and formal written programming languages are machine languages

JavaScript source code ransomware

Creative Commons License Christiaan Colen via Compfight

Formal languages are designed so that applications written in those languages can run on devices such as desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones. Each formal language has its own syntax (similar to a natural language’s grammar), which include set programming structures and rules which define how the computer reads and executes tasks. A computer is a machine, which only understands your typed code if you use the exact words, logical structures (e.g. IF this condition is met, THEN do this), and punctuation that conform to the syntax of that language. Scratch is a formal language that is presented visually rather than as text, though text can be used in some of its structures.

In terms of Scratch, an event could be a key press, a mouse movement/click, or the broadcast/receipt of a message. Whenever an event is triggered, it activates a script, a programmed sequence of actions. For example, whenever the right arrow key is pressed, the sprite will move 10 steps along the x axis (to the right). Branching (IF/THEN conditionals) are used for a different purpose. They change the sequence of the script or instructions depending on whether a condition is TRUE/FALSE. Branching is especially useful for sensing walls, monsters, traps, and other sprites in Scratch game design.

Rethinking how I teach visual programming

While the original solution involving a forever loop does work, it is not considered to be good practice because of the demands that it can place on the device. While it isn’t the end of the world that my young students have been using a forever loop as a container for IF/THEN branching to control user input via the arrow keys, it is important that they understand the logic, structures, and recommended techniques of the language they are working with – especially if they choose to explore other formal languages, such as Java and/or Python, in their secondary schooling.

There is no one right way to write a program, so we need to try and teach our students to create code which is logical, structured, easy to implement, and which addresses the user’s needs. 

So this is a simple example of the recommended programming technique for controlling a sprite with your arrow keys, with colour sensing branching.


Drawing some conclusions

Firstly, I am extremely fortunate to have a friend with programming expertise and experience teaching adult education. Without his patient assistance, I’d still be stuck teaching the same flawed thinking and approach for the foreseeable future

Secondly, it has become really obvious that in order to teach visual programming effectively, I need to develop my understanding of the logic and syntax structures of the programming languages I work with. While it isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for introducing and experimenting with Scratch, it really, seriously pays to understand the concepts that students are exposed to as they tinker, problem solve, and create digital solutions with code.

Developing my professional knowledge and expertise with Scratch has taken me years, and I still find myself filling in the gaps – including the ones I didn’t know I had! One of my professional growth goals this year was to develop my understanding of how to effectively teach, assess, and support my students’ learning in visual programming, with a view to eventually exploring formal written programming languages.

Ironically, I wasn’t expecting to have to go back to the very beginning, and start from Scratch!



2016: A Year in Review

I know I’ve been quiet this year, but this post marks 6.5 years of blogging. Quite an achievement that.



In 2016, I worked alongside teachers, exploring our new digital technologies curriculum; and returned to working with students, establishing our new LEGO Robotics and Maker Monday afterschool programs. There aren’t many jobs where you can say that you get to teach with LEGO and robots!



Scribblebots @ Curtin University Makerspace in Schools workshop


Looking back, these are the events and experiences which defined my year:

  • Our award winning makerspace and robotics program began to flourish, with growing interest from our students, parents, and the wider educational community. We even had a Twitter friend visit from the USA!
  • I led the redesign of our library space, purchasing new furniture and robotics technologies with the goal of transforming it into a contemporary makerspace and learning hub.
  • Our research partnership with Curtin University bore fruit. We hosted three in-school makerspace workshops, helping pre-service teachers and researchers explore how hands-on maker activities (e.g. Scribblebots, LED origami) can build students’ deep understandings of science concepts.
  • I co-presented with the Curtin University team at the Primary Science Conference, and co-presented a Makerspace workshop at the Educational Computer Association of WA Conference.
  • I explored the design thinking process through the Studio Curious ‘design thinking accelerator’, prototyping a project for system change in Catholic Education WA. (This was a fantastic learning experience, one I’ll blog about in more detail later).
  • I coached my inaugural FIRST LEGO League season, taking The Robotic Rebels and The MotherBoards to our first ever robotics tournament. It was an incredible learning experience, both for me, and my amazing robotics girls!


Returning to ISTE

And in a recent development, I’ve just received confirmation that I will be returning to the USA in 2017, presenting at the International Society for Technology Education Conference in San Antonio, TX. I’ll be running a Scratch Game Design workshop; and co-presenting “The FIRST LEGO League Coaches’ Corner” with Louise Morgan and Aaron Maurer. I hope to see you there!

I have no plans to return to the USA for a few years after #ISTE17, so if you’re planning to be at the conference, or live in/near Chicago, Denver, Glenwood Springs, and San Francisco, I’d love to catch up for a coffee and a chat if you have the time.

What makes me curious?


I recently applied to join a new Catholic Education WA design thinking accelerator program, known as Studio Curious. Considering that there were nearly 300 applications from across Western Australia, I was shocked and delighted to be accepted into this exciting program.As part of my application, I was asked to reflect on what makes me curious, and what innovation means to me. I’d like to take a moment to share a few excerpts from my application here.

What makes you curious?

As a lifelong learner, my curiosity and desire to explore new ideas, take positive risks, and collaborate with global educators have transformed the way I teach, and the way I see the world. I’m a teacher, but most importantly, I’m a learner. I learn with my colleagues, both in my school community, and through my online professional learning networks. I am also learning alongside my students, sometimes teaching beyond my comfort zone, especially while teaching LEGO robotics.  

I am curious about online professional learning, design thinking, global collaboration, and leading pedagogical change within a school. In particular, I am curious about how we can support teachers’ acceptance and implementation of new curriculum and pedagogical initiatives; and how we can empower our students to connect, communicate, create, and collaborate with other children around the world.

What does innovation mean to you?

For me, innovation is the freedom to take productive risks in my teaching and learning. It is a mindset, a way of thinking, and above all, a way of doing. Over the years, I’ve introduced and developed several initiatives, including The Global Classroom Project, which I co-founded and led for over four years while working as a relief teacher. Now working in a school, I’m leading the development of our makerspace and robotics programs, empowering our girls’ engagement with digital technologies.

Through these projects, I have learned a great deal about leading and implementing change. It is one thing to dream and come up with creative ideas, it is another thing entirely to work with others to implement, and realize the potential of those ideas. Innovation is a fluid, challenging, collaborative process of working out what works, what doesn’t, and how you can make your ideas work better within your local and global community. Innovation isn’t necessarily easy, but it can have a tremendous impact on the teachers and students involved. In my case, my innovation experiences have been life changing.

So, what is Studio Curious?

Studio Curious is an exciting experiment “designed to provide educators with the permission and confidence to create change; promote knowledge of evidence-based best practice in education; and encourage new connections”. 

We are a group of thinkers and change agents, coming together from all around our state to explore how we can use design thinking to empower curiosity in our education system.  At this point, no one is sure where this program will lead, or what innovation projects will come out of it.

I, for one, am really looking forward to finding out.

CEWA LEAD Awards for Excellence 2016


A photo with my Principal, a passionate advocate for our makerspace and robotics program.

A few weeks ago, my library colleague and I accepted, on behalf of our school, a prestigious Catholic Education WA LEAD Award for Excellence in Learning. This award recognized our work in establishing our school’s makerspace and robotics program, which includes a research partnership with the Schools of Education and Engineering at Curtin University. Unfortunately, due to a family emergency, my library colleague was unable to attend the awards event.

Working in a girls’ school, we are primarily focused on engaging and empowering our students’ interests in digital technologies and engineering. After setting up our library makerspace late last year, we were introduced to several researchers at Curtin University, who were interested in researching the impact of makerspace projects on girls’ engagement with Science, Technologies, Engineering, and Mathematics. As a result of this connection, we have hosted several “STEM makerspace workshops”, facilitated by pre-service teachers and engineering students. Earlier this year, we created our after school “Maker Monday” program, run in the school library, which provides interested students with the time and space to pursue design and engineering projects – going beyond tinkering with electronics and robots. At the start of 2016, I also established our competitive LEGO robotics program. As you can probably imagine, it has been a rather busy year!

Our makerspace and robotics program is very much in its’ infancy, but our curiosity, risk taking, and experimentation are beginning to have a real, positive impact on our students’ learning and engagement with digital technologies. We know we have a lot to learn, and we have a long way to go before what we can meaningfully integrate the makerspace philosophy and pedagogical approach across our school. We are indebted to our school leadership team, both past and present, for without their support these projects would never have happened.

Having our work acknowledged by our system as an example of innovation and excellence in learning means a great deal, and it is a huge confidence boost as we continue on what has been a challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, teaching and learning journey.



The Learning Curve


It is been a while since I’ve ‘put pen to paper’ here, but it is nice to be back. In light of my experiences and the challenges I’ve faced so far this school year, I’m dedicating this post to the ‘learning curve’.

For me, good teaching is about learning. It is about taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and collaborating with colleagues to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of our students. As an educator, taking risks and exploring new ideas is not an easy or straightforward process; and without leadership support, you are likely to fail. It is one thing to dream up an innovative idea, it is quite another to implement it within your school community.


This year, with the benefit of a FIRST Australia grant, and the support of my school leadership team, I found myself teaching an extracurricular LEGO robotics program, preparing two teams for the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition. I’d never worked with these sophisticated robotics kits before, and I wasn’t sure how the program would run in our school, let alone how I’d teach it. After many hours of internet research, watching YouTube videos, and adapting teaching materials from & Carnegie Mellon University, I set up my Google Classroom groups, and set to work.

Admitting that “I don’t know, but let’s try it and find out” is not an easy thing for a teacher to say to their students.  Yet, this quickly proved to be a common refrain in my robotics class! Learning isn’t linear, and sometimes it can be messy. I based my teaching and learning approach on the idea that we could explore robotics concepts and skills through guided problem solving and hands-on experimentation. If it doesn’t work, let’s keep experimenting, and work out why. I was teaching out of my comfort zone, trying to stay one step ahead of my students. I could hardly pretend to be the font of all knowledge – I was often building and testing programs and mechanisms an hour before my students arrived for class.


Our FLL robotics program was never intended to just be about ‘teaching girls to code’, or capturing their interest in ‘STEM’ careers, although these were important underlying goals. We were interested in teaching our girls to think, and empowering them to become confident learners and problem solvers. Now, a little over three months into the program, I’m starting to appreciate the impact of this approach, particularly for those girls whose academic results would usually deny them this kind of opportunity.

Learning how to teach robot programming and engineering with LEGO EV3 Mindstorms has been a steep, yet extremely rewarding learning curve. My teaching programs are covered with notes about what worked, and what I’ll need to do differently next year. Yet, by taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and facing my fears – I am not only growing as an educator, but I am making a difference in my students’ learning.

At the end of the day, that’s what teaching is all about.

Facing the Challenges of the new Digital Technologies Curriculum

As schools around Australia prepare for the implementation of the new Digital Technologies curriculum, teachers are starting to come to terms with some difficult new terminology, content, and skills. While Western Australian schools have been given two years to implement a slightly more user friendly version of the national Digital Technologies Curriculum, we are facing a number of significant challenges in common with our interstate counterparts.

Challenge 1: Explaining the difference between Digital Technologies and ICT

There is a common misconception that ICT and Digital Technologies are the same, and teachers who haven’t read the curriculum are in for a shock.

While ICT focuses on the use of technology for learning, Digital Technologies focuses on empowering students to be creators, producers, and developers of technologies through the development of computational thinking. 

For example, students use ICT skills when they make movies, podcasts, and digital stories. They develop understandings of digital technologies when, for example, they explore the role of hardware and software in their smartphones;  and when they use computational thinking to code digital solutions to problems – e..g. programming a robot.

A good way of defining the difference is comparing ICT General Capabilities to Literacy Skills, and Digital Technologies to the English learning area.

Challenge  2:  To integrate, or isolate, that is the question.

At the start of 2015, we introduced major changes at my school. In line with the purpose and goals of the ICT General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, classroom teachers became responsible for integrating ICT across the curriculum. There were two reasons for this change. Firstly, we believed that learning with ICT should not be isolated in the computer lab, segregated from the rest of the curriculum. Secondly, building our school’s reputation for high-quality ICT and digital technologies programs will rely on the expertise of every member of the school community, from the Principal down. Can schools really afford to reply on one expert? What happens when they leave …?

In our school, many teachers are exploring the power and relevance of ICT and digital technologies to their classroom teaching. I’ve watched teachers become the most excited learners in the room, empowering their students’ creativity and problem solving through digital storytelling, coding, and robotics – and starting to see authentic connections to maths and literacy.

My coaching experiences this year, and discussions with teachers (through Twitter and ISTE), raises an important question in regards to the implementation of the Digital Technologies curriculum.

What is the point of teaching students to collaborate, think computationally, and solve real world problems in one lesson a week outside of everyday classroom learning?

Yes, this may be appropriate for a technologies extension program, but surely these skills are important and applicable for all students, across a range of learning areas?

Challenge 3:  Supporting Teachers’ Engagement with Digital Technologies

The implementation and integration of the Digital Technologies curriculum will be a steep learning curve for most teachers. Some of the concepts in the new curriculum are scarily new, especially the parts about binary language and coding. Yet, others are familiar. For example, we use algorithms for problem solving, cooking, and giving directions / instructions in English , Science, and Maths. We use spreadsheets for collecting and making sense of data in Maths and Geography. These learning activities provide an authentic, relevant context for the integration of digital technologies.

As indicated by the WA curriculum writers, it makes sense to integrate Digital Technologies at the primary level – both through classroom learning activities, and through your library makerspace (if you are lucky enough to have one). If we learned anything from last year; however, it is that teachers are going to need a lot of support, both through collaborative PLCs and resourcing, to become comfortable teaching this new curriculum.

At my school, I have been working as a part-time teacher coach, supporting teachers’ integration of ICT and digital technologies in the classroom. This approach is most empowering for those teachers seeking help to develop their relatively limited technology skills, and those keen to push pedagogical and technological boundaries. I know that most schools can’t afford to fund this kind of role, but I would suggest that teacher relief for collaborative planning, classroom observation, and targeted professional development in Digital Technologies would be money well spent. I’d start by developing the skills and capabilities of a small group of interested teachers across a range of year levels, and then giving them time and space to share their learning with their colleagues. I am hoping to do this in my own school this year – it is just too hard to lead this change process alone.

Challenge 4:  Finding resources and fellow pathfinders.

As we begin our Digital Technologies journey, I take a great deal of comfort in the knowledge that we’re not alone. Around the country, and around the world, teachers are developing resources, activities, and tools that we can adapt for use in our school.

As schools begin their familiarisation and planning with the Digital Technologies Curriculum, it is important to consider what tools and resources they already have available, e.g. iPads; and plan for strategic investment in edtech tools which add value to the curriculum, such as BeeBots, Dash (Wonder Workshop), Sphero, and MakeyMakey. I’d add LEGO EV3 robotics if you can afford them!

For developing skills in computational thinking and coding, there are a range of free resources and communities available online, including:

If you’re interested in developing your understanding of the curriculum, or if like me, you’ve been tasked with leading its implementation, I’d highly recommend connecting with your local ICT subject association, joining Twitter, and exploring the CSER Digital Technologies MOOC. With the rest of Australia (except NSW) implementing this change from 2017 (2018 in WA), things are about to get really interesting!

 I’m learning as I go, and I don’t have all the answers.

Leading the familiarisation and implementation of the new Digital Technologies Curriculum in my school is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career to date; and I’ve learned some valuable lessons.

You don’t need to have all the answers when you’re starting out. If you can develop a basic understanding of the concepts and tools, don’t be afraid to learn and experiment alongside your students. It took me months to overcome my fear of learning in front of my students and colleagues, but I soon discovered that the more I threw at our girls, the more they came back and surprised me..

 Leading curriculum change isn’t easy, but its worth fighting for.

You will treasure those little moments … Watching a girl who struggles in class successfully code a robot for the first time . Noticing that a group of students have continued the Hour of Code 2015 activities independently through their Christmas holidays. That time I sat down with a Year 5 student and asked her how to explain how she did things I didn’t know were possible with Scratch.

At the end of the day, my students are the reason I teach.

Looking back on a year with @adobevoice

In March 2015, I wrote about an iPad digital storytelling app that was beginning to have a transformational impact on my teaching practice. At the time of writing, I wasn’t aware just how big an impact it was going to have on my Early Childhood colleagues’ practice as well. Over the course of the year, our teachers and students in PP, Year 2, and Year 3 used Adobe Voice extensively, across a range of learning areas.

I love Adobe Voice for its simplicity, and especially how it makes it so easy to find Creative Commons / Public Domain images and backing soundtracks. Our students love it because of its ease of use, especially in pairs (they take it in turns to record a slide). I wrote extensively about our pedagogical approach and suggested teaching strategies in March, and on The iPad Creative Challenge wiki, so I won’t rehash those comments here.

Here are some of our Adobe Voice highlights of 2015: 

Celebrations – Year 2 (Student Blogging Challenge)

Keep Australia Beautiful – Year 3, Persuasive Writing

 Time – Year 3 Maths


“Thank You Mr Faulkner” – Year 3 English (Narrative Retell)

Teaching Time with iMovie!


One of the highlights of 2015 was watching one of my colleagues starting to take big risks with her integration of ICT. In Term 3, I was taken aback by her suggestion that we should teach her students how to use iMovie in Maths, creating movies documenting students’ learning about time.

We worked together to teach students how to storyboard and script their presentations, and gave them some basic instruction in the use of iMovie. The students spent several weeks filming and editing their projects, and some were actively experimenting with the more advanced features of iMovie. We were so impressed with the results that we invited our Acting Principal in for a special screening, and shared the videos with parents on Open Night.


Bringing Geography to Life with Google Maps & Skitch


There are times where a chance remark can lead to amazing learning outcomes. The use of Google Maps and Skitch in Year 2 and 3 Geography was one of those occasions …

A conversation about mapping skills led to a suggestion that we take a risk, and see if we could integrate Google Maps (which I know and love) and Skitch (which I’d never used with students) into my colleagues’ Geography unit. We soon had four excited teachers, and some incredibly excited students, learning about “bird’s eye view”, “street view”, voice navigation, and labelling maps with Skitch.

We gave a brief demonstration of how to use Google Maps (looking up our school), and then let students play – looking for their homes and local neighbourhoods. They loved the Voice Search feature, although some soon realised they didn’t actually know their home address … ! Others were a little frustrated that Google apparently didn’t understand them! We also encouraged them to explore Google Street View, and the photos that people upload to Google Maps and Earth.

We then asked students to take screenshots of the map, and gave them a basic introduction to the Skitch annotation tools. In Year 2, students annotated maps of their homes and neighbourhoods. In Year 3, students explored, and annotated photos of the natural and built environments in Papua New Guinea. These are some of the results! (Note: some slight edits / cropping to remove street names).




Exploring Papua New Guinea

lily & ilaria 3B

File 2-09-2015 11 53 49 am

Lily & Ilaria 3B


Next Steps

We were blown away by how quickly our young students learned how to use Google Maps and Skitch, and just how powerful a tool it can be for teaching Geography concepts. We will definitely use it more extensively in the coming school year, possibly in Maths (directions), Science, and Geography.

Please share how you use Google Maps and Skitch in your classes in the comments below!