04 April 2011

computational thinking: a digital skill for everyone

I grabbed the first periodical I could find for this article review. I wish I could say I headed directly to a journal I knew I could connect to the learning objectives for our course, Long Range Planning. I ended up finding Computational Thinking: A Digital Skill for Everyone, (Barr, Harrison, & Conery, 2011). Since my focus of education is technology integration, I am very interested in objective number 4, “Understanding the Characteristics of a 21st Century School.”

The article summarizes Computational Thinking as a way of “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science,” and refers to an article by Jeanette Wing from 2006 in the Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery. The ideas in this article are even more interesting to me because I am fascinated by the idea of computer-human interface and how we interact with machines. But I digress.

If there is going to be a fundamental in the way we do business in education, our spaces are going to have to be conducive to some informal thinking in the ways described in this article. Students will have to have spaces in which they can think, draw, sketch, collaborate, and analyze. Many of the problems described in this article are open-ended and very difficult to solve. In fact, some of these problems may not have known solutions. This means students will have to have the ability and confidence to deal with complex problems, be persistent in finding a reasonable solution, be able to tolerate ambiguity, and the capability to communicate their solutions and ideas to other students. This may be over the web through web 2.0 tools such as Skype, GoogleChat, or through a wiki. This means they will need a space with wired or wireless access, whiteboards for face-to-face collaboration and tables on which they can spread out their work.

Nothing in this article alludes to a classroom in which students sit in rows, face the front, and have information delivered from a lectern; the article talks about skill development, specifically collaboration, communication, and analysis. When I read about this kind of work with students, visions of a casual, informal space come to mind. Students are free to work, research, experiment, and communicate in the same space. There is not a separate lab in which they work and a separate room for lecture. Students would also need a small space for presentations. Maybe something with a few chairs situated around a Smartboard on which their information could be projected and used for brainstorming activities. This ideal classroom would encourage decision-making. It would allow teachers to differentiate learning, and encourage analytical thinking.

A change in education is going to require a re-design of where students work. They will expect to have information “talked-down” to them if we continue to have rows of desks facing the front. Multi-use spaces should be considered if we are going to expect students to use multiple skills. Actually what I have just described is my ideal classroom. I have moved away from the rows this year. I am resistant to that change (or any change) because my personality loves rows, but it was a conscious decision to begin to move towards a student-centered classroom. Our classroom now has 7 small groups of desks arranged facing each other instead of rows facing a Smartboard. As I tell my students, you cannot eat an elephant in one bite, you have to take tiny bites. My re-arrangement was a very small bite. A classroom as described above would be the entire herd of elephants!

It's nice to think about what you would have in your ideal classroom. What would you do?


Barr, D., Harrison, J., and Conery, L. (2011, March/April). Computational Thinking: A Digital Age Skill for Everyone. Learning and Leading with Technology, 38 (6), pp. 20-23.

Wing, J., (2006) Computational Thinking. Communication of the ACM. 49, pp. 33–35.