Archives For curriculum

What is Computational Thinking (CT)?

Mitch Resnick and Jeanette M. Wing are the two main people who best describe Computational Thinking (CT).

Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab and creator of Scratch published this paper with Karen Brennan in 2012.  Computational thinking has three main parts: Concepts, Practices, and Perspectives.


  • Concepts are the actual computer science ideas.
  • Practices are the ways of thinking and problem solving.
  • Perspectives are beliefs about oneself and having a mindset that is open to being a computer scientist and/or thinking like a computer scientist.

Jeanette M. Wing, head of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, explains Computational Thinking in a 2006 article

Here are Wing’s everyday examples of people using computational thinking:

When your daughter goes to school in the morning, she puts in her backpack the things she needs for the day; that’s prefetching and caching.

When your son loses his mittens, you suggest he retrace his steps; that’s back- tracking.

At what point do you stop renting skis and buy yourself a pair?; that’s online algorithms.

How do Completely Automated Public Turing Test(s) to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, or CAPTCHAs, authenticate humans?; that’s exploiting the difficulty of solving hard AI problems to foil computing agents.

Prefetching and caching, back-tracking, algorithms, and solving AI problems are all computer science concepts. All this takes place in your daily life.

Wing suggests that computational thinking is not just about programming computers but thinking like a computer scientist. A computer scientist is a creative human problem solver that thinks with computers, not a boring human who tries to think like a computer, says Wing.

Who is Teaching Computational Thinking?

As coding and computational thinking have been written into curricula around the world, we are seeing people working to understand what it means.  Here is a collection of sites and projects of people making sense of CT.

Coding and CT in the United Kingdom

Computing At School Barefoot (aka CAS Barefoot) is an project in England designed to support primary school teachers to understand and teach computational thinking. Here is how they define and explain CT.

What does it look like in UK schools?

Marc is a teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator in the UK has been integrating coding into his early years curriculum for several years. Here are some examples of the activities he has been doing:

Unplugged Activities February 2, 2015

Programming Apps for Early Years July 13, 2013

He also has a book Enabling Environments: A Computing Curriculum Beginning in Early Years

And, here is a blog post if you are looking for apps for teaching coding from a teacher in the UK.

Coding and CT in the United States

33 states allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation.


Google is conducting research in the area of computer science education in the US.

Google has also put together a course on Computational Thinking for Educators.

ISTE has compiled many resources to support educators and parents in understanding CT.

Coding and CT in British Columbia, Canada

British Columbia has recently launched a new curriculum that explicitly includes coding and computational thinking. Coding and CT are found within the new Applied Design, Skills and Technologies (ADST) curriculum, last updated June 27, 2016.

Here are K-3 Coding Resources compiled by Karen Lirenman.

Questions I have about Coding and Computational Thinking:

  1. Is it a requirement to teach coding in order to teach Computational Thinking?
  2. In Ontario, should we be teaching computational thinking and coding even if it is not in the curriculum?
  3. If we decide to teach coding and CT in Ontario, do we have to cut back on something else? If so, what are we cutting back on?
  4. Many subjects have habits of mind that we are trying to develop in students. In math we want to develop powerful math thinkers, in social studies we want critical thinkers, in language we want to be able to express ideas in sensitive and culturally responsive ways. How does focusing on CT help or hinder these existing habits of mind and ways of thinking that we are already trying to emphasize the in the existing curriculum?
  5. Computational thinking and algorithmic thinking are all about logic and being highly systematic. Dr. Donna Kotsopoulos has asked whether this is counter to what we have been saying about divergent and creative thinking relating to 21st Century skills. Does computational thinking run in opposition to 21st Century learning ideals? In what ways does computational thinking compliment or detract from the 6Cs: character, citizenship, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity?
  6. How often do we lead coding activities that teach coding concepts like sequencing and debugging but do not go deeper into thinking and beliefs?  How do we go beyond the pure computer science concepts and into deep thinking?

**Updated January 4 2017 with information about and seeing more Miro art.**

This blog post includes a 5 minute video, a lesson plan and examples of student that show integration of visual art curriculum and Computational Thinking in my grade 3 classroom.

Thank you to Bea Leiderman, Carolyn Skibba, Douglas Kian and my experience at the Apple Institute in Berlin for this idea.  Using Keynote and Kandinsky is Bea’s idea. It’s brilliant. Bea, Carolyn and I went to the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin where we saw Kandinsky’s work. We also had in depth workshops on Keynote. The combination of these experiences at the Apple Institute in Berlin lead to this idea and a project. Bea, Douglas and I are currently working on a project where we are investigating how these ideas of art, coding, and Computational Thinking might fit together. This is the early stage of this team project.

This video gives an overview of the lesson and a chance to peak inside my grade 3 classroom:

Visual Arts Expectations

These are the expectations from the Ontario Arts Curriculum that apply to this lesson:

Elements of Design:

• line: variety of line (e.g., thick, thin, dotted)

• shape and form: composite shapes; symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes and forms in both the human-made environment and the natural world

Principles of Design:

• variety: slight variations on a major theme; strong contrasts (e.g., use of different lines, shapes, values, and colours to create interest)

Creating and Presenting:

D1.1 create two- and three-dimensional works of art that express personal feelings and ideas inspired by the environment or that have the community as their subject

D1.2 demonstrate an understanding of compo – sition, using principles of design to create narrative art works or art works on a theme or topic

D1.4 use a variety of materials, tools, and techniques to respond to design challenges

Reflecting Responding and Analysing:

D2.2 explain how elements and principles of design are used to communicate meaning or understanding in their own and others’ art work

Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts:

D3.2 demonstrate an awareness of a variety of works of art and artistic traditions from diverse communities, times, and places

Computational Thinking Goals

Karen Brennan and Mitch Resnick published a paper in 2012 describing a framework for teaching and assessing Computational Thinking (CT). I learned about this paper from a presentation by Julie Mueller at a CT event for teachers in August 2016.  Based on this framework, these are the CT goals of this lesson:

Coding Concepts (actual computer science concepts): Sequencing and Debugging.

Practices (thinking habits): Being incremental and iterative, testing and debugging, reusing and remixing.

Perspective (beliefs about self): Using technology to express oneself.



Source: Wassily Kandinsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings, 1953 by Joan Miro

For more information on Joan Miro, check out this site here. Thank you Louise L. for letting me know about this site.The page I have linked “provides visitors with Miró’s bio, over 400 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Miró exhibition listings. The page also includes related artists and categories, allowing viewers to discover art beyond our Miró page.”  The rest of is very much worth looking at also.

Teacher Prior Knowledge/Experience:

Student Prior Knowledge/Experience:

  • Time to play with Keynote

Lesson Part 1:

Bell-work and Minds On:

As students enter the classroom, give them the option of taking either a Miro or Kandinsky colouring sheet. While the students settle and the teacher takes attendance, students colour the colouring sheets anyway they like.

Introducing the Project and Meeting Miro and Kandinsky:

Introduce the project by showing an example. This was created by Bea:

Next, show examples of Kandinsky and Miro works. Ideally show the same art work as the colouring pages and several more.


Explain how the art is abstract. Show how the example has movement that happens with just a single click.

Go over the success criteria:


Teach Art Concepts:

Have students compare their colouring pages to the actual artists’ works. Notice the main differences. Miro uses curved lines and primary colours whereas Kandinsky uses many different colours but has more geometric shapes and straight lines.

Teach Coding Concepts:

Introduce the coding concepts of sequence and debugging.

Working On It:

Now it’s up to students to create their own Kandinsky or Miro style art, or a mixture of both.  You should model how to find shapes, lines, and how to add animation. There are two ways to animate and they are shown in the screenshots below.

First, tap on the More button (…) and then select “Transitions and Builds.”

Or, tap on the object you want to animate and tap on “Animate.”


Warning: Many students will figure out how to add the animations but won’t be able to link them together.   I skip telling them this step so they are confronted with having to problem solve and debug.  Once they have a need for this information, I show them how, though many figured it out on their own.  The screenshot below shows how to link the animation. To sequence the animation tap on the object, then tap Animate, then tap the heading to get the options you see in the screenshot.  Notice that you have to change “Start Build” from “On Tap” to “With Previous Build” or “After Previous Build.”img_0486

Once students have completed their projects ask them to share the Keynote files with you.  You could do this by using Airdrop or having them save the Keynote file to Google Drive.

This is the end of the first part of the lesson. Now you will need some time to convert those Keynote files on your Mac to mP4. This part was time consuming.  I wish I could export keynote files to iMovie on iPad. But, at this point you can only send a copy As Keynote, PDF, or PowerPoint.

Teacher’s Homework Prior to Part 2:

This part is not fun.

  1. Open each file in Keynote on a Mac and export the file as a Quicktime. (File>Export To>QuickTime…)
  2. Then, open each file in iMovie and export as MP4.
  3. Share these files with students. I used Google Drive.

Lesson Part 2:

Bell-work and Housekeeping:

Give students instructions to retrieve the MP4 file you created with the Keynote files.  Ask students to open the file in iMovie. Review the success criteria.

Teach Art Concepts ~ Reflection:

Students use iMovie to create a voice over audio recording explaining why Miro or Kandinsky would like their art work.  Review the key elements and principles of design for each artist. Give students time to do their reflection and upload videos to Seesaw.

Teach Coding Concepts:

When students are finished uploading their art reflection, have students use Apple Swift Playgrounds Learn to Code 1 to reinforce coding concepts. Have students work on the Command puzzles.

Examples of Student Work:

Here are examples of the animations prior to students adding reflections.

Here are examples including the reflection:

I am starting to feel more confident with teaching through inquiry based learning and problem based learning. One challenge can be getting started and deciding what to focus on for inquiry.  Though models of inquiry hint at starting points, I have 6 ideas in this post that came about through reading these sources.

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Barell, J., & Barell, J. (2007). Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Stacey, S. (2011). The unscripted classroom: Emergent curriculum in action. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Capacity Building Series (2011) Getting Started with Student Inquiry

1. Use a factoid to invite and provoke student questions

In Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.) the authors suggest starting with provoking factoids and then asking students to observe, think and question.  Use the factoid to get kids asking related questions.

For example, what questions come to mind when you read this factoid?

Tornadoes are nearly invisible whirling winds until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms inside the funnel.

Questions come to mind about vocabulary, but also about the shape and colour of tornadoes. Including a picture also helps students access prior knowledge and start wondering.

2. Quality Responding

Instead of thinking about what good questions a teacher should ask, think about asking students questions in response to their ideas. Ask students to expand and elaborate.

Teachers could try pushing student thinking forward by asking:

  • What do you wonder about now?
  • Does this suggest any new approaches, ideas to you worth investigating?
  • What kinds of connections can you make?
  • Where do we go from here?

3. Slow down

Both Susan Stacey, author of The Unscripted Classroom: Emergent Curriculum in Action and this Ontario monograph titled “Getting Started with Student Inquiry” suggest teachers slow down.  Observation is essential. Slow down and watch what children are doing. Reflect and interpret what you see. Then try to provoke a next step.  Slowing down and taking time to reflect and interpret is the fulcrum on which we can balance student’s authentic questions and theories with teacher’s agenda and the curriculum. We do not need to pit student interest and freedom in a fist fight with the curriculum.  If we as teachers know our curriculum and take time to reflect and interpret what our students are interested in, there is a way to honour their interests and curiosities. This is a chance for teachers to get creative and innovative.

balancing T and S agendas with time

4. Be on the look out for student’s questions, theories and persistent interests

Student driven inquiry does not need to start with a question. It can start when a teacher notices a student has a theory about something. This can be challenging since students are often bringing a lot of ideas, questions, and interests forward. Which ones do we focus on as educators?  When we notice that a student or a group of students are consistently interested in a topic, we should head in that direction. It’s best to focus on ideas that have some persistence according to Stacey (2011). Or, if you aren’t sure the idea merits moving forward with inquiry, test it out by provoking students with materials and resources and see if they take the bait.  The teacher can not and should not respond to every question and whim in the classroom. Or else, he or she will be like the golden retriever in this video, chasing after every little flash of student interest.

5. Use previous activities to feed forward

Don’t let the learning come to a full stop. Let investigations and units propel new topics. I need to work on this in a major way. So far this year we have taken a PBL or IBL approach to learning about magnets, friction and extreme weather. When the final assignment was in and graded that was it!  I didn’t go back and reflect. I didn’t go back and ask the students to look at each other’s work and see if there were some new questions to move us forward. I was the driver.  I was leading teacher directed PBL and IBL.  Now I know.

6. Help students make sense of non fiction text

Reading about an interesting topic is a great way to open up new questions. Help students use a coding system to monitor their thinking as they read. With paper books sticky notes work great. If iPads are available, Good Reader is my preferred markup app. This strategy comes from Harvey and Daniels (2008) Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action.

coding as we read

November 5-7 was the Bring IT Together Conference in Niagara Falls.  Here are some of the most discussed key words.  This graph shows how many times these words appeared in presentation write ups.  For what it is worth, innovation came up only 18 times at 7% of key words found in session titles and descriptions.

Key Words at BIT

I attended 6 totally different sessions on Inquiry

I attended six sessions on inquiry and they were all different.  In fact, if you were to get all these people and put them in the same room but ban them from using the word inquiry, I bet they would have no idea that they were interested in the same topic.

What is counter-intuitive, perhaps, is that each of the sessions was excellent and compelling.

But, if each group had a different take on inquiry, then, what is inquiry?

I am unsettled by how differently each presenter perceived inquiry.  What does it mean that each of these sessions was so completely different? Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? What is inquiry in Ontario schooling today?

What is inquiry?

According to a paper in the Journal of Science Teacher Education by Barrow (2006) and another article in ZDM Mathematics Education by Artigue and Blomhøj (2013)  inquiry can be any of the following:

  • a teaching strategy (teacher posing questions for inquiry)
  • a set of student skills
  • knowing about inquiry
  • being inquisitive and taking action
  • engaging students
  • hands on and minds on
  • manipulating materials
  • stimulating questions by students
  • learning to act like professionals in the field

Why is inquiry important?

From the same articles, the purpose of inquiry can be:

  • helping students prepare for a world of work and careers
  • fulfilling a personal need
  • fulfilling a societal need (critical thinkers)
  • helping prepare students academically
  • generating greater awareness
  • experiencing the discipline like real mathematicians, scientists, sociologist etc.

Inquiry as hands on investigations

Louise Robitaille and Peter Douglas presented on their classroom work about inquiry-based learning. They have compiled lots of resources here. Peter described spending a couple of weeks going deep into one theme or building project such as go carts. While he keeps his math separate, he lets the students engage in extended periods of creating, building and hands on learning.  From what was shared at the session, these two take the perspective that inquiry is about hands on to get the minds on.  It seemed like the purpose for inquiry was to engage and fulfill a personal need.  Here learning is a bi-product of a busy, unstructured and bustling with activity classroom.  The advice was to relax, let go and embrace where the students take you once you have provided a guiding question or a bunch of materials to inspire.

Read their session description here.

Fabulous session. Lots of honest talk about Peter’s classroom and the wonderful opportunities he provides.

Inquiry as a teaching strategy and a mindset

Aviva Dunsiger and Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper presented a half day session on inquiry.  What a great opportunity to go deep! They brought tonnes of examples of teacher work and student work.

They curated resources here and invited participants to crowd source even more information in the documents!  Their session was called Inquiry into Action and the description can be found here.

With a focus on the new social studies curriculum in Ontario, Aviva and Jo-Ann took inquiry to be a teaching approach that would leave students into thinking and taking action.  They saw their role to prompt and provoke. Next, they would guide students to ask their own questions and seek to find answers. They were comfortable with letting students ask questions they did not know the answer to and then made it their mission to support the students in finding out. I love that their was an emphasis on taking action and social awareness.  Another impressive session. But, a totally different take on inquiry.

Engaging Students

It is clear to many, including the thoughtful and nuanced thinker and educator Brandon Grasley, that engaging students can be achieved by inviting and supporting students own questions. His thoughtful blog post on engagement is also, as a side note, another write up on how challenging it is to grapple with these hot words of the day.

Then there was Inquiry Based Learning and E-Portfolios in FDK  (session description here) by passionate teacher-librarian Ray Mercer.  Students dressed up as astronauts and told stories of their learning journeys with the use of technology.

His presentation can be found here.  He has just received technology to augment inquiry learning with FDK students.  I wonder how that might change his approach to inquiry?

Hands on technology to inquire

Learning to act like professionals in the field

Inquiry Science Incorporating Technology was a session by secondary teacher Colin Jagoe.  The session description is here. Among other things, his students used Minecraft to do investigations to measure force of gravity in a Minecraft world by having Steve jump off towers. Here is an example I found online.  Colin presented his student’s work and shared how it was important that he let go and allow students to conduct investigations in contexts that were personally meaningful and interesting, like real scientists!  Did he plan the minecraft thing? Apparently not. But did he support it? Yes!

Amazingly, his students had done the same thing as a legitimate physics researcher. The only difference? The physics researcher has a PhD and published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal, here.

Impressive. Also, another totally different take on inquiry.

Inquiry in Ontario?

How important is inquiry in Ontario? Below is a chart representing the number of times the word appears in each of the most recent curriculum documents.

Inquiry Word Count


The mathematics curriculum word count is low. So, I checked problem solving (28 times) and solve problems (83 times). It would seem that problem solving and inquiry are perhaps synonymous.  Are they?

In closing, I am uncertain about what inquiry is and what it should look like in Ontario.