The importance of developing computational thinking skills, such as decomposition and algorithmic thinking cannot be underestimated. These will enable our children to solve problems and to develop into independent thinkers and tinkerers.
Last month I was scheduled to teach a Year 2 class at my school. I usually teach Year 5 and above so this was already outside of my comfort zone. It was their writing lesson and the class were to practise their cursive writing, authoring a letter to Santa Claus. As a teacher of computer science, leader of digital technologies and a ‘bit of a computer geek’, I hadn’t had to write cursively for two decades. I thoroughly enjoyed the lesson, practising my cursive writing on the 60” interactive touchscreen to display words that they were struggling to spell, such as ‘Ed Sheeran’ and ‘drone’, all things featured on their Christmas lists. It made me wonder whether cursive writing would even be considered a skill by the time that they entered the world of work in the wholly digitised mid 21st century.
Digital technology now infiltrates every part of our daily lives, from being woken in the morning by an alarm on our smartphones to navigating the roads of Bangkok using Google Maps and tracking the quality of our sleep using a smartwatch. Unfortunately, few of the world’s education systems have kept pace with the rate of technological development and digitisation and this has led to a global shortage of people who possess the skills to create and maintain the technology upon which we have come to rely.
As the governments of the world have gradually realised the scale of their country’s reliance on technology and its contribution, or potential contribution, to their GDPs, they have started to act. Israel, like some of the ASEAN member states, was ahead of the game in this regard and introduced compulsory Computer Science for all children of high school age at the turn of the last century.
The UK followed their example and Computing became a compulsory subject for children age 5 to 16 in 2014. The United States, under Barack Obama, introduced the CSforAll initiative, a drive to ensure that all children, from elementary level upwards, had the opportunity to study computer science. So, as a result of this delayed global realisation there has been a huge emphasis on teaching our children how to code. This is great.
But, what about the wider skills that are required to enable our children to become the tech wizards of tomorrow? There’s a quote, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”, attributed to Edsger Dijkstra. So what is it about? Computer science is about solving problems using computers, which we have to programme so that they can reproduce solutions automatically. We must teach our children how to solve these problems so that they can design the solutions, the tech, to do it for us. This involves a myriad of fundamental skills collectively described as ‘computational thinking’, the new 21st century literacy.
When I ask a class what this means the inevitable answer is “thinking like a computer”, but computers cannot think (yet). It means solving problems like a computer; methodically, systematically and logically. Someone who is a good computational thinker will analyse a problem and apply logical reasoning to form judgements. They are able to decompose the problem, breaking it into smaller, more manageable parts, look for any patterns and use abstraction to simplify it to help identify possible solutions. They will do all of this algorithmically. Did you get those big words? Just in case, that was decomposition, abstraction, pattern recognition, algorithm and logical reasoning.
There is a famous example used to describe the application of computational thinking. In 1854 London there was a cholera epidemic and Dr John Snow suggested that the cholera was spread through contaminated water, contradicting the theory that diseases were spread by bad smells. It wasn’t quite as controversial as Galileo, but not far off. Snow approached the problem algorithmically, applying a systematic method and logic to what he knew to be true. He knew where there were confirmed cases of cholera in the city so he mapped them.
He knew where the water pumps were located so he mapped those too and clear patterns emerged. This approach helped to identify cholera as a water born disease, the importance of clean water and ultimately saved millions of lives. Of course, Dr John Snow did not know he was applying computational thinking in his approach because we have learned from him, and others like him, how huge problems can be solved. In my Computing classes we make jam sandwiches, or at least we try to
make jam sandwiches, by following algorithms. A recipe is just like a computer algorithm, it describes the basic technique to get the job done.
As the children solve brain teasers and logic problems, I ask the children ‘How did you solve that?’, ‘Where did you start?’, ‘What steps did you take?’, ‘Why did you do it that way?’ I want them to be able to explain, using logic, how they came to a solution. I have seen computational thinking concepts used across the curriculum at my school; a blindfolded teacher being given directions in French, a dance sequence broken down into a series of steps and the simplification of a cell structure made from clay. All hugely fun activities that also teach computational thinking skills and therefore help children learn how to approach problems.
Why is teaching computational thinking important? Imagine telling a group of children to put a Mentos into a bottle of soda. They’ll have great fun watching the resulting explosion but they won’t be any wiser to understanding the chemical reactions that took place in the bottle if they haven’t been taught the scientific theory. Teaching children how to code without also introducing them to some of the fundamental principles of computer science is the same.
The OECD South East Asia Regional Forum recently produced a report entitled ‘Opportunities and Policy Challenges of Digitalisation in Southeast Asia’. The opening line of this report is ‘The world is in the midst of a digital transformation..’ and it goes on to identify four key priorities for future governments in developing their employment and skills policies.
The number one priority, “Ensuring that initial education equips all students with solid literacy, numeracy and problemsolving skills, as well as basic ICT skills and complementary socio-emotional skills, such as teamwork, flexibility and resilience.” We need to teach children how to identify what the problems are and how a computer program can help to solve these problems. Writing a computer program is not the hardest part, identifying what to write is. And that requires a whole new type of literacy, computational thinking.