Jerry Fingal
Teaching computational thinking more important than defining it

Computational thinking (CT) is riding a strong current in the edtech world that teaching K-12 students to think like computer scientists will better prepare them for life in the digital age.

But bringing CT to K-12 classrooms isn’t something that can be done overnight. It faces challenges from introducing it into the curriculum to getting teachers fully on-board. It’s a challenge that could stand to undergo some computational thinking itself.

The first step in that process would be breaking down the problem into smaller, more manageable ones.

Defining CT

For computer science educator and author Kiki Prottsman, one of those smaller problems is that many teachers don’t yet really know what computational thinking is. And that problem is rooted in its exact definition.

“I think that’s where a lot of teachers get hung up,” she said. “And since it’s at the very beginning it’s a big deal.”

But even “trying to look it up on the internet it’s kind of a mess. Different people consider it to be different things,” she said.

The classic definition of computational thinking was devised in 2006 by computer scientist Jeanette Wing in an effort to spread computer-science problem-solving to other disciplines. It consists of four pillars: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and algorithms.

In 2012, ISTE and the Computer Science Teachers Association led an effort to develop an operational definition of computational thinking to help K-12 teachers introduce it in their classrooms. It translates Wing’s framework into a set of six steps that were aimed at resonating with K-12 teachers.

“Those are the two ways those terms are used and they’re both super valid,” Prottsman said. “It’s just that if I’m a teacher and I’m exploring it for the first time, I might think I’m starting to get it and then somebody slips in that other description and I’m completely lost again.”

Most teachers have been doing CT already

Clear expectations for teachers are also needed.

“If the government or school districts are going to start requiring that teachers do this, then they should really have a clear definition of what they’re expecting, much the same way that a teacher should have a clear definition of what’s expected in an assignment,” she said.

If educators are in a fog about what counts as computational thinking, Prottsman recommends that they print out both Wing’s and ISTE’s definitions and use the elements that work for them. Both, she said, make up the foundation of computational thinking.

Once educators set out to teach computational thinking, they’ll likely realize they’ve been teaching it all along, Prottsman said. It's often hidden in other lessons.

Just using the vocabulary of computational thinking in the classroom will help both teachers and students. For example, Prottsman said, if a math class is working on a difficult word problem, the teacher could suggest they “decompose it.”

“Let’s take it apart and find all the elements we’re working with here,” Prottsman said. “If the teachers can use that terminology, then, first off, they will be highlighting for themselves all the places they’re already doing this every day. Secondly, students will start to know those terms as problem-solving tools and then they’ll recognize they have those in their backpack when they want to solve something that seems unfamiliar.”

CT math

The payoffs for integrating computational thinking into education are huge, Prottsman said.

“The ability to solve a problem that no one taught you to solve is very empowering. Once you believe you can overcome hurdles, and you as a student believe that ‘a teacher didn’t teach me this but I might be able to figure it out anyway,’ you take ownership of your own education. And you become someone then who’s really unstoppable in education and in life. So, the earlier we can get kids to believe that, the better it is for everybody.”

Learn how to create innovative learning opportunities that build computational thinking skills in Prottsman's book Computational Thinking Meets Student Learning