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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?

Who is innovating?

Don Wettrick (Google+, Twitter, YouTube) is a high school teacher on a mission and has spawned the Innovations class. He is getting kids to hack their education and he’s getting some high profile thinkers to act as mentors. I spoke with Don about his hacker class and this is my distillation of our high energy, fast paced, intense conversation about hacking and hands on learning with teens.

What is the Innovations Class?

Don is reaching out for opportunities and helping his learners find and develop their entrepreneurial spirit. The Innovation course is by application only and spans 9 months of the school year. His current class has 9 enrolled students and 3 auditors. He admits that scheduling has been a challenge and some students have selected to audit the course without academic credit as a work around for joining the class when it really didn’t fit their schedule. I call that hack one! Below is a video created by students demonstrating one project from the class:

The secret ingredients are mentorship and sponsorship.

Hack two is that Don has realized what many are missing in the conversations about hack education: the need for mentors and sponsorship.  I do not mean sponsorship in the NASCAR sense, I mean in the learning sense. We both realize that the social aspects of learning are still paramount to success and he is executing this point. Don is helping his students find mentors and sponsors to deepen understanding, broaden their reach and participate in what David Weinberger calls networked knowledge. Don Wettrick is not a name dropper, so it took a little bit for him to spill the beans on the big wigs he’s brought to his school. Have you heard of Ryan Porter? (No, I hadn’t either, but if you are a screenager, your answer would likely be different). But, I know you have heard about Daniel Pink, right? The YouTube interview can be viewed here. He admits that some mentors provide a “one-and-done” experience, which is fair, Mr. Pink has other things to do.  Don points out that the real value is having kids reach out and build rapport with their own mentors instead of having teachers fanboy and fangirl out on their own thought-leader-superheroes.

Who wins? Who loses?

How are students responding to the elective Innovation class? Okay, quick pause: predict what student profile would do the best in this classroom.  Who might demonstrate the greatest success in the Innovation class? Picture the student in your mind including their grade point average, work ethic, organizational skills and so on.  I will provide Don’s observations in 3 seconds:








Answer: Students who are comfortable with freedom, openness and uncertainty did best. Don observes that students chasing high grades are the lowest achieving in his class. They apparently struggle in the absence of a syllabus and assignments.  I wonder if this is because these students are good at school and bad at learning? He also notes that students who are not motivated and who appear apathetic get overwhelmed very quickly.  Having freedom to exercise your own creative spirit is a scary thing and requires some scaffolding. I wonder if the profile of the successful student will change over time as more students develop problem solving, networking, collaboration and HOMAGO (hanging out, messing around and geeking out) skills.

Hands on Learning: What does this look like in the classroom?

There is a structure to his class to support his learners. The innovation cycle begins on Mondays as Don drops the inspirational bait or bomb to get the thinking moving. He tracks trends online via Forbes, You Tube, Twitter, and Stumble Upon. The students latch on to ideas and the class moves forward from there. The Next step is to research and find mentors. Students share their research on the topic followed by a day to themselves to let the ideas congeal. Friday is the day of reflection and blogging and wraps up a week of innovation.

Who else is an educational hacker?

Since speaking with Don Wettrick I have also found others that are offering hacks within their schools. David Preston is hacking the curriculum at his high school too. Howard Rheingold interviews Dr. Preston below and DML has written this blog post.

So what? Now what?

So, somewhere between kindergarten and a post doc, learners are asking their own questions.

Now, how do we hack mainstream and required high school courses? How do we hack elementary school? Passion projects, genius hour, problem based learning, gaming, gamification, hack the classroom? Should we hack the classroom? Why would we want to do such a thing?

Why? Because there should be more than two sweet spots (K and PhD) in education where a learner’s wonderings are taken seriously.

I wish to reflect on the tragic events that occurred yesterday to in Newtown, Connecticut. I wish to reflect on my process of coming to know about the shootings and terrible events. I am also wondering about truth in journalism and authority online.

I heard the news first through my friends on Facebook and my tweeps on Twitter. I scanned cryptic messages about the horrible events as well as parents reflecting on the unimaginable sadness of never picking their kid up from school again. The emotional dots were there within the fog of 140 characters, status updates and links. The tid bits of information about the events were in a vacuum of facts, authority and context. I followed the links and made the web searches to join the dots in a fast-fact-finding mission to understand. I triangulated, Howard Rheinbold would be proud. Or maybe I didn’t, I just moved forward in a messy way answering the ecology of temptation and clicked my way until my last click. I ended at the Globe and Mail site. “Authority is the last page in the linked chain you visit – the page whose links you choose not to click on” says David Weinberger in his book Too Big to Know. So, I grant authority to the Globe and Mail, since once I get there, I was satisfied that I had information that was accurate, balanced and fair. I started with my friends and emotions and the fast thinking. I ended with giving the badge of authority by giving my attention.

Today, the morning after of the sadness, I found myself reading George Coursos’ blog post, I feel pushed further to consider the need for accuracy. I feel a need to consider accuracy, authority and the facts. After all, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (Attributed)

George Couros laments that our bastions of information such as reputable news sites must be accurate above all. I agree, so would the Society of Professional Journalists in their Code of Ethics. I also think the issue of accuracy on the Net plays in to the much larger issue about knowledge and information. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows certainly speaks to the risk of the Net and information online. George Couros brings to light the potential for harm when misinformation about children’s and people’s lives is posted hastily. This isn’t just an affront on facts and correct information: getting it wrong yesterday is damaging to individual and collectives souls. It’s a first person trauma and/or vicarious trauma that is hard to undo. What happened yesterday highlights the interwingularity of the internet, but at an emotional level, we realize that this mix of information and social media can hurt, and hurt badly.

We must be so careful to whom we grant our attention. “No one can be informed without her consent. Information requires for its transmittal the user’s grant of attention.” But what was highlighted for me through George Coursos’ post is that even when your attention is aimed at reputable sources, you can still get burned with misinformation.

If we know that facts can be tenuous and accuracy among professionals will vary how to we protect our hearts and our minds? I think in the absence of trustworthy sources, where every source must be questioned, and authority is not obvious and dubious, it is the reader that must position herself and create the context as well as do the fact checking. Yes, it is terribly sad that the facts were not accurate. But, are we looking at new news with old expectations? Can we expect fast thinking and reporting to be true? Howard Reingold would have suggested triangulation. Finding the facts on multiple sites and cross checking. Crap detection includes, according to Reingold in Net Smart (p. 79) checking on the author, the author’s sources, using or to check the traffic of the site, comments and general as a “credibility meter.” Where did our clicks stop when reading on the events of yesterday? Where you stop is where you attribute authority, be it deserved or not.
But there might not have been enough time for this information to be available. It was happening fast. Which raises another issue. Even if the facts were not accurate. Even with a storm of misinformation, was it beneficial to know quickly what had happened? The early reports were not correct, but were those reports useful in some way? Misinformation may existed, but as an early warning of what went down, maybe it’s better to have a bit of what is going on and then be responsible for putting it together correctly with triangulation and awareness that authority isn’t in someone’s credentials, title, training or where they are posting. Authority is given from the consumer and reader to the tweet, author, or website.

I have recently begun to follow George Couros’ blog and read his tweets regularly. I believe he has excellent ability to hone his attention, to turn on his crap detectors, and to give authority to worthy sources. I agree that accuracy ought to be a primary concern for journalists, and this point would be hard to argue from any point of view. However, I do wonder about the responsibility of the reader/consumer in these cases. I wonder about our responsibility to award authority carefully. I wonder about what we can learn from this in order to hone our understanding of what we must be teaching our students about consuming information, especially with emotionally charged topics – where our humanity and hearts are at risk of injury.

How do I teach my students about the new version of authority? How do I teach students about facts from ‘reliable’ sources? How do I teach triangulation and crap detection? Particularly when the emotions run high and in intense situations where most humans are notoriously brain stem thinkers?

Information is changing. Authority is changing. Facts aren’t the facts. What does the curriculum look like now? What is our relationship with information and the network of information? What is true, who are the experts, whom do we trust?

Most importantly, I am so sorry for the families and the community of Newtown, Connecticut. My heart aches for the children and the families most.

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