“Computational thinking is really about thinking, and sometimes about computing.” – Aman Yadav, Michigan State University
Computational thinking is a vital skill if you want to use a computer to solve problems that matter to you. That’s why we consider computational thinking (CT) carefully when creating learning resources here at the Raspberry Pi Foundation. However, educators are increasingly realising that CT skills don’t just apply to writing computer programs, and that CT is a fundamental approach to problem-solving that can be extended into other subject areas. To discuss how CT can be integrated beyond the computing classroom and help introduce the fundamentals of computing to primary school learners, we invited Dr Aman Yadav from Michigan State University to deliver the penultimate presentation in our seminar series on computing education for primary-aged children.
In his presentation, Aman gave a concise tour of CT practices for teachers, and shared his findings from recent projects around how teachers perceive and integrate CT into their lessons.
Research in context
Aman began his talk by placing his team’s work within the wider context of computing education in the US. The computing education landscape Aman described is dominated by the National Science Foundation’s ambitious goal, set in 2008, to train 10,000 computer science teachers. This objective has led to various initiatives designed to support computer science education at the K–12 level. However, despite some progress, only 57% of US high schools offer foundational computer science courses, only 5.8% of students enrol in these courses, and just 31% of the enrolled students are female. As a result, Aman and his team have worked in close partnership with teachers to address questions that explore ways to more meaningfully integrate CT ideas and practices into formal education, such as:
- What kinds of experiences do students need to learn computing concepts, to be confident to pursue computing?
- What kinds of knowledge do teachers need to have to facilitate these learning experiences?
- What kinds of experiences do teachers need to develop these kinds of knowledge?
The CT4EDU project
At the primary education level, the CT4EDU project posed the question “What does computational thinking actually look like in elementary classrooms, especially in the context of maths and science classes?” This project involved collaboration with teachers, curriculum designers, and coaches to help them conceptualise and implement CT in their core instruction.
During professional development workshops using both plugged and unplugged tasks, the researchers supported educators to connect their day-to-day teaching practice to four foundational CT constructs:
An emerging aspect of the research team’s work has been the important relationship between vocabulary, belonging, and identity-building, with implications for equity. Actively incorporating CT vocabulary in lesson planning and classroom implementation helps students familiarise themselves with CT ideas: “If young people are using the language, they see themselves belonging in computing spaces”.
A main finding from the study is that teachers used CT ideas to explicitly engage students in metacognitive thinking processes, and to help them be aware of their thinking as they solve problems. Rather than teachers using CT solely to introduce their students to computing, they used CT as a way to support their students in whatever they were learning. This constituted a fundamental shift in the research team’s thinking and future work, which is detailed further in a conceptual article.
The Smithsonian Science for Computational Thinking project
The work conducted for the CT4EDU project guided the approach taken in the Smithsonian Science for Computational Thinking project. This project entailed the development of a curriculum for grades 3 and 5 that integrates CT into science lessons.
Part of the project included surveying teachers about the value they place on CT, both before and after participating in professional development workshops focused on CT. The researchers found that even before the workshops, teachers make connections between CT and the rest of the curriculum. After the workshops, an overwhelming majority agreed that CT has value (see image below). From this survey, it seems that CT ties things together for teachers in ways not possible or not achieved with other methods they’ve tried previously.
Despite teachers valuing the CT approach, asking them to integrate coding into their practices from the start remains a big ask (see image below). Many teachers lack knowledge or experience of coding, and they may not be curriculum designers, which means that we need to develop resources that allow teachers to integrate CT and coding in natural ways. Aman proposes that this requires a longitudinal approach, working with teachers over several years, using plugged and unplugged activities, and working closely with schools’ STEAM or specialist technology teachers where applicable to facilitate more computationally rich learning experiences in classrooms.
Integrated computational thinking
Aman’s team is also engaged in a research project to integrate CT at middle school level for students aged 11 to 14. This project focuses on the question “What does CT look like in the context of social studies, English language, and art classrooms?”
For this project, the team conducted three Delphi studies, and consequently created learning pathways for each subject, which teachers can use to bring CT into their classrooms. The pathways specify practices and sub-practices to engage students with CT, and are available on the project website. The image below exemplifies the CT integration pathways developed for the arts subject, where the relationship between art and data is explored from both directions: by using CT and data to understand and create art, and using art and artistic principles to represent and communicate data.
Computational thinking in the primary classroom
Aman’s work highlights the broad value of CT in education. However, to meaningfully integrate CT into the classroom, Aman suggests that we have to take a longitudinal view of the time and methods required to build teachers’ understanding and confidence with the fundamentals of CT, in a way that is aligned with their values and objectives. Aman argues that CT is really about thinking, and sometimes about computing, to support disciplinary learning in primary classrooms. Therefore, rather than focusing on integrating coding into the classroom, he proposes that we should instead talk about using CT practices as the building blocks that provide the foundation for incorporating computationally rich experiences in the classroom.
Watch the recording of Aman’s presentation:
You can access Aman’s seminar slides as well.
You can find out more about connecting research to practice for primary computing education by watching the recordings of the other seminars in our series on primary (K–5) teaching and learning. In particular, Bobby Whyte discusses similar concepts to Aman in his talk on integrating primary computing and literacy through multimodal storytelling.
Sign up for our seminars
Our 2024 seminar series is on the theme of teaching programming, with or without AI. In this series, we explore the latest research on how teachers can best support school-age learners to develop their programming skills.
On 13 February, we’ll hear from Majeed Kazemi (University of Toronto) about his work investigating whether AI code generator tools can support K-12 students to learn Python programming.
Sign up now to join the seminar: