Computational thinking is a process that every learner should understand and utilize in order to be a successful and productive citizen to society. This is a bold statement, but one that is important for educators to understand. The thinking required to develop solutions and ideas is a skillset that is not only needed for learners in school, but for every single person to develop in order to function through all the obstacles life sends our way. This paper will be making a case that computational thinking should be taught to everyone and not just in isolation. The paper will examine what is computational thinking, how it can be taught, how it can be measured, and how this type of learning can meet the needs of any school through Common Core, personalized learning, blended learning, project based learning or any other buzzword initiative taking place in schools across the nation.
According to Wing, computational thinking is “taking an approach to solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behaviour that draws on concepts fundamental to computing”(Wing, 2006). There are many different ways to define computational thinking, but at its essence the idea is to understand a problem and be able to gather the necessary tools and data to create possible solutions to solving the problem. Even more importantly, the learner should be able to develop and understand this problem solving process and apply it to any other situation that requires a solution. Often times computational thinking is considered to be in the realm of math, computers, technology, and the abstract. However, once a learner understands the process it can be applied to any subject or situation and this becomes the critical piece. If schools could develop this type of thinking and apply to all subjects in a cohesive fashion, learning could really go deep in application and thinking.
A critical piece to helping young adults develop the skillset of computational thinking is the notion that it cannot be taught in isolation and without justifiable reasons. So many things taught in education are pulled from context and do not have any real world application to the students so the material and skills are not truly developed because there is no purpose to the learning. As stated in the book Invent to Learn, “The best way to ensure the development of design thinking is for students to be engaged in the authentic design activities.” (Martinez & Stager, 2013) We could easily swap out the word design for computational thinking because the concept applies in anything we do in life. There must be a connection and reason to what we are learning. If not, then we have a situation which is no longer beneficial to either the educator or student. As Joi Ito is famous for saying, “Education is something that is done to you. Learning is something you should do for yourself.” (“Learning Over Education,” n.d.) If we don’t ensure that we develop the critical pieces and components to computational thinking, then students will develop “ennui normally reserved for algebra” (Martinez & Stager, 2013) and that would be a disservice to every single learner. Learning must be meaningful and serve a purpose to the lives of learners. The beauty of computational thinking is that it can be applied to any subject and topic as long as a problem is presented for the students to be able to solve.
As schools continue to figure out the best ways to connect the Common Core standards to the classroom and more importantly the lives of students there is a huge opportunity to bring in computational thinking. Google for Education has a site for computational thinking and the first paragraph of the site reads:
Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. CT is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including math, science, and the humanities. Students who learn CT across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as between school and life outside of the classroom.(“Google for Education:,” n.d.)
The beauty of this definition is that it showcases how this idea can be applied throughout all disciplines. As schools feel the pressure to hit test score numbers and meet state and federal requirements they are placed between a rock and a hard place. At one end many realize the beauty and power of interdisciplinary learning, problem/project based learning, and basically understanding that schools need to change from the status quo. On the other end there is so much pressure to perform that many skills are taught in isolation without much meaning, packaged curriculum and claims to be the answer, and forcing teachers to be on the same page and not trusting their professionalism. If you take time to look through a Google search on lessons for computational thinking you can find lessons on any subject. Take this page of resources as one example. Many of these lessons can be used, modified and adjusted to bring real world meaning to the classroom. The key is not to just do a lesson to do it, but to take a problem or something that intrigues students and develop a system around finding solutions or answers to the task at hand.
Looking exclusively at the Iowa Common Core many of the standards lend themselves to the computational thinking system to show mastery of the standard. For example we could look at the following social studies standard:
Essential Concept and/or Skill: Understand the use of geographic tools to locate and analyze information about people, places, and environments.(“Geography | Iowa Core,” n.d.)
This standard by itself does not sound exciting. It does not sound like something a middle school student would jump out of bed and run to school to learn. However, their community matters, their school matters, their city/town matters to them. Through class conversations, current events, exploration of how their house, school, activities affect their daily lives, an educator could start to develop a problem for them to solve about why they make the decisions they make in their lives. Next, students could start to analyze data about their city and start to apply skills and tools to connect their lives to the standard. Reading a map about a location that holds no meaning to them in a textbook is a wasted effort. Studying maps showcasing crime, pollution, poverty, etc. in their city and then overlaying that with the problem they are trying to solve brings more meaning to their lives and their learning.
Once classrooms start to shift to these deeper learning opportunities whether it is a problem based learning opportunity or creation of programs and coding a critical issue is the assessment piece. Much of education has been low level learning – memorize the states, spelling tests, multiple choice tests – that are easy to assess, but do they really demonstrate learning or compliance? Deeper learning that derives from thinking like computational thinking is much harder to assess. There are different options, but one that works well with any age is the creation of a portfolio or artifact collection. Mitch Resnick, the creator of Scratch has written many times about the beauty of sharing artifacts of work. Anyone can access the massive database of Scratch programs where you can view them, remix them, and share your own. The power of teaching students to document their learning journey is that they are able to see their own learning progress. There are many options for creating portfolios of learning. So much of the framework depends on each individual school. The key is for students to document the journey through blogs, reflections, video, pictures, animations, etc. In the end students should be able to explain what they learned and how they reached the answer to the problem.
Finally, computational thinking is a great framework for any goals that schools are working towards. There are a lot of buzzwords in education i.e. project based learning, problem based learning, STEM, blended learning, personalized learning, gamification, and deeper learning to name a few. All of these items are powerful learning opportunities. The beauty of computational thinking is that it fits all of these along with all subjects being taught in schools. It is a thinking process. The days of teaching how to think through a paper in language arts, fill out a lab report for science, studying formulas for math are over. Why not use one system of thinking and then modify accordingly? Once students start to understand that this problem solving system can be used in any subject, then they are able to see that perhaps it could work in other parts of their lives as well. From an educator and administration perspective this is not one more thing to add to our plates. Rather, it will help streamline the system. For example, my school has a very heavy focus on project based learning. If we could utilize computational thinking and help educators understand the what and how we could really dive much deeper. We would not have to spend time teaching our own unique methods of thinking, but instead focus more on building more tools and skills into their problem solving toolbox. It comes down to wordsmithing to make it all work and that is the beauty of this thinking. In the end, no matter what we teach, we all want our students to be able to do the following four things on their own:
- Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
- Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
- Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
- Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems
No matter the definition we use for computational thinking we cannot argue that the skillset is essential to being productive members of society. If schools could work together to cohesively showcase to students how it fits all areas of learning, schools could really enhance the learning for all. This is not a radical shift, but something that has been talked about for many years, but never implemented. It is time to use tools like Scratch, Minecraft, coding, and all the other platforms to push the envelope of learning while helping students see how the steps in computational thinking can help them in any aspect of their lives.
Brennan, K., & Resnick, M. (2012). New Frameworks for Studying and Assessing the Development of Computational Thinking. Proceedings of the 2012 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Vancouver, Canada.