Computational thinking in education and in eTwinning projects
It is necessary to train students to develop competences that will help them adapt better to the requirements and challenges of today’s information and communication society. In order to succeed in that, teachers need to, on one hand, change the way students interact with technology and help them become creators instead of mere technology consumers. And on the other hand, teachers need to show students how to use computational thinking and the skills related to it for planning and solving all kinds of complex tasks in their everyday lives. Can school foster the development of computational thinking from an early age and at all education stages? Is it possible to develop this new way of thinking from the perspective of any area of the curriculum and using a wide range of educational resources, not only programming?
Before answering these questions, we begin by offering a definition of computational thinking and its application in the field of education in these last few years. Here are some preexisting definitions related to this concept:
- Computational thinking refers to the thought processes involved in formulating problems so their solutions can be represented as computational steps and algorithms. Alfred V. Aho (The Computer Journal)
- Computational thinking is the process of recognising aspects of computation in the world that surrounds us, and applying tools and techniques from Computer Science to understand and reason about both natural and artificial systems and processes. Royal Society.
In 2006, Jeannette Wing published an article called Computational Thinking in which she defends the idea that it is necessary to include this new competence in student training due to the fact that it is an essential complement for learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
According to Wing, ‘Computational thinking involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science’. In other words, it means teaching students to think like a computer scientist when faced with a problem.
Wing’s idea spread to other areas of knowledge and stimulated in these last few years numerous investigations set off to understand and develop teaching and learning processes that would integrate computer thinking in the classroom. In the 2011 article Computational Thinking: A Digital Age Skill for Everyone, Barr, Harrison y Conery describe several concepts related to computational thinking such as: problem decomposition, binary search, recursion, and parallelization (search and techniques that allow the decomposition of bigger problems in simpler and more manageable parts that would facilitate solving them through abstraction and pattern recognition), data representation (graphs, tables, words or images), and use of models and simulations in order to represent data. As for the difference between computational thinking and critical thinking and mathematical thinking, these authors argue that computational thinking is more focused on tools and:
- It implies a unique combination of thinking skills that provide the basis for a new form of problem solving.
- It is more focused on tools.
- It entails the use other forms of solving problems in contexts where it was previously not feasible, but it is possible now because they can be automated and processed at much higher speed with today’s equipments.
As for its application in the education field, the International Society for Technology in Education and the Computer Science Teacher Association (ISTE and CSTA, 2011) emphasize that computational thinking fosters a series of skills that enable students to be actively involved in the learning process in all curricular areas and educational stages. Some of these skills are: confidence and persistence when students deal with complex or open-ended problems, tolerance for ambiguous situations, and the ability to work in teams, to communicate and to be able to achieve a common solution. These skills are similar and necessary for solving equations, planning a project or even writing a draft for a writing task. Therefore, computational thinking is a problem solving process that includes, but is not limited to:
- Formulating problems in a way that enables us to use a computer and other tools in order to solve them..
- Analyzing and organizing data in a logical way.
- Representing data through abstractions, such as models and simulations..
- Automating solutions through algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps)
- Identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources.
- Generalizing and transferring this problem-solving process to other problems..
It’s interesting to see how the curricula in various European countries is starting to integrate computational thinking; it is also relevant to get in-depth knowledge on the best ways to address its integration in the classroom. In order to find out more on the topic, we recommend the report on ‘Developing Computational Thinking in Compulsory Education’ (2016) produced under the direction of the JRC (the Joint Research Centre is the European Commission science and knowledge service) with the participation of EUN. Among the main conclusions the report delivers, we would like to highlight the following ideas:
In order to integrate computational thinking in a comprehensive and efficient way across all levels of compulsory education it is necessary to define a clear vision and establish specific goals. Computational thinking should go beyond offering a few hours of coding in the curriculum; it calls for a robust strategy that accounts for the wide range of factors involved. A key consideration is the integration of computational thinking across the full spectrum of subject areas and educational stages, starting with introducing concepts related to it to children at an early age. Given these considerations, a holistic approach to its integration in compulsory education is needed; suitable evaluation strategies and teacher training are necessary. Promoting an opinion exchange among the various institutions and stakeholders involved (not just among those in charge of the curricula development) can provide valuable insight when it comes to defining specific educational actions. It is especially necessary to promote the exchange of information, experiences, and good practices between European countries. Finally, a wide-angle monitoring and analysis strategy is required to measure the impact and sustainability of implemented actions.
In their 2015 article Computational thinking and new learning ecologies, J. Valverde Berrocoso et al. describe coding as being more than a cognitive competence used to design codes; they analyze computational thinking in education from the point of view of social constructivism. According to these authors, ‘The computational thinking concept refers to a high-level complex competence related to a specific conceptualization model that human beings have; it develops ideas and it is linked to abstract mathematical thinking and pragmatic engineering thinking that we apply in many aspects of our everyday lives. Computational thinking does not refer to being able to create coding for computers; it requires thinking in various levels of abstractions and is not linked to a device. One can develop computational thinking without a computer (a pen and paper will suffice); nevertheless, digital devices give us the opportunity to address problems that we wouldn’t even dare to address if these didn’t exist. Computational thinking is a fundamental competence that every citizen should be familiar with in order to get on in the digital society; however, it’s not a routine or a mechanical skill, but it’s a way of solving problems in an intelligent and creative way (both of them are human characteristics that computers don’t possess).
Moreover, computational thinking combines abstraction and pragmatism due to the fact that it is based on Mathematics, which is the world of ideas, and it develops using engineering projects that relate to the real world. Computational concepts are used to approach and solve real problems, to communicate with other people, and to manage many aspects of our everyday life. (Wing, 2006) (…) When we convert thoughts into objects through proceedings, algorithms, and data structures, we make personal knowledge public and we can share it with others. In this way, computational thinking becomes shared.’
This idea of sharing and constructing learning experiences as a social process within a user community where collaboration is promoted in a digital culture context is exactly what makes eTwinning ideal for fostering computational thinking by means of various interdisciplinary projects. The eTwinning projects we refer to are those that give the students the chance to investigate in teams, to identify causal relations between things and ideas, to establish time patterns, to use repetition to solve problems, to clarify unconnected data and reorganize them into categories, to provide relevant examples that help prove the effectiveness of fundamental concepts, to apply this knowledge to new contexts and situations, to confirm a theory by conducting an experiment, etc.
In this article we wanted to single out an example of integrating computational thinking in an eTwinning project. Due to its originality and above all to the young age of the students involved in the project, we wanted to highlight the work done in the Pre-primary school El Nogal (Alpedrete). This school was involved in the eTwinning project Recreating Van Gogh in children aged 0 to 3 years old and is currently involved in the Are we robots? project.
Mª Carmen Pino Blas, the El Nogal Pre-primary school head teacher tells us about the development of the robotics project in their school:
At the El Nogal Pre-primary school we decided to make a strong commitment to a plan to develop computational thinking in the groups of children aged 1-2 and 2-3 years old because we feel that it’s our responsibility to meet the new demands that come up in the society in which these children have to grow up and live.
We are trying to lay the foundation for the development of computational thinking in our students who are going to be the future inventors and creators.
The computational skills plan began in the 2015/16 school year through LITTLE BITS material which they use to manipulate the different technology elements and experiment with them (motors, switches, vibrators, LED lights, etc.). All of these elements help them set their computational thinking in action. These resources draw the attention of the little ones immediately; we were pleasantly surprised to see that it also helped the children with concentration problems keep focused.
We also work with ROBOTIC BOXES which are made up of different Lego-type pieces, such as wheels, axes, motors, and coding cards. The students were introduced to all these materials in a natural way in the classroom. The goal is for them to manipulate things, experiment, and build whatever they want; we don’t want guided learning and everybody doing the same thing, in the same way, and with the same results. There are many learning styles and we should respect the students and their own particular learning style. The goal is for them to have the leading role in their learning process..
With the students aged 2-3 years old we are currently working with the Technological story; the students connect and disconnect the circuits, choose what lights, sounds, and itineraries are going to include in their story; each and every one of them designs it as they want it to be.
The novelty of the story resides in the fact that it is done in a transparent material and the children can observe how things work. This material adds great value to the development of these students’ computational thinking.
Lastly, I would like to mention that we also use small rope robots and a magnet game.
The work we do in the classroom is carried out in small groups; this fosters collaborative work since one student’s idea is continued by the others. We have come to the conclusion that this working method results in the students having a great deal of respect for each other, for their work and designs.
As educators, the role we have in this process is to accompany the children in their discovery journey without getting involved in their decisions or actions. We wouldn’t want to finish this small review of what we do without stressing out the importance we place on tearing apart old toys, devices, etc. in order to create something new from them; we need to find out how things work first before we start to build new ones.