I recently read and enjoyed this paper:

David Weintrop, Alexandria K. Hansen, Danielle B. Harlow, and Diana Franklin: “Starting from Scratch: Outcomes of Early Computer Science Learning Experiences and Implications for What Comes Next”. Proc. ICER’18, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1145/3230977.3230988

Its authors found that high school students learning programming do better with block-based languages than with text-based languages, and the impact is greatest for female and minority students. I really want to include this result in the next version of Teaching Tech Together, so I contacted the lead author and asked for help summing up the conclusions. The paper’s original abstract is:

Visual block-based programming environments (VBBPEs) such as Scratch and Alice are increasingly being used in introductory computer science lessons across elementary school grades. These environments, and the curricula that accompany them, are designed to be developmentally-appropriate and engaging for younger learners but may introduce challenges for future computer science educators. Using the final projects of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students who completed an introductory curriculum using a VBBPE, this paper focuses on patterns that show success within the context of VBBPEs but could pose potential challenges for teachers of follow-up computer science instruction. This paper focuses on three specific strategies observed in learners’ projects: (1) wait blocks being used to manage program execution, (2) the use of event-based programming strategies to produce parallel outcomes, and (3) the coupling of taught concepts to curricular presentation. For each of these outcomes, we present data on how the course materials supported them, what learners achieved while enacting them, and the implications the strategy poses for future educators. We then discuss possible design and pedagogical responses. The contribution of this work is that it identifies early computer science learning strategies, contextualizes them within developmentally-appropriate environments, and discusses their implications with respect to future pedagogy. This paper advances our understanding of the role of VBBPEs in introductory computing and their place within the larger K-12 computer science trajectory.

The final summary is:

A growing number of studies have found that block-based programming tools like Scratch are a more effective way to introduce kids to programming than traditional text-based tools. What’s more, the gains in performance are largest among female students and students from underrepresented minorities. People are starting to notice — for example, the new AP Computer Science Principles exam asks students questions using both blocks and text — so if you are teaching programming at the K-12 level, start your learners with blocks.

I don’t think the second is a dumbed-down version of the first, any more than I think blocks are dumbed-down text. Instead, I think they are different tools intended for different audiences with different priorities. The first is aimed at the authors’ fellow academics; the second is for busy practitioners who want to know what they should do or change today. It’s like the research summaries I read when my siblings and my father had cancer, and I think researchers would have a lot more impact if they wrote actionable briefs like this for their work.

It Will Never Work In Theory was our attempt to do this for empirical software engineering; it didn’t catch on, but maybe it would be worth trying again for computing education research.