Computational Thinking

A great deal has been written lately bemoaning the way computers and technology in all its forms have taken over children’s lives.  City streets require watchful – or defensive – walking to avoid a collision with a young person focused on texting, unaware of anyone or anything else.  Riding on bus or subway it is rare to see a child without a gadget on which to play games, and even very young children seem to have cell phones.  Socializing seems to consist not of conversation but individual preoccupation with some form of technology.

The involvement in technology is reflected in the world of higher education where the number of computer science majors has more than doubled.  This also reflects a job market interested in coding and big data.  But beyond the involvement with one’s personal device, and the indispensable role of computers for information and problem solving, increasingly the interest is in how computers do what they do.  In other words, how to think like a computer.

Turning to google with a question and getting the answer in no time can seem like magic.  So do things like artificial intelligence or the use of robots for tasks that seemed to require human intelligence.  Now, however, the ability to think like a computer is gaining interest as a way to tackle problems in many areas of life.

Computational thinking is increasingly part of computer science studies in higher education but it is making inroads in various ways even for very young children.  At the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School of Tufts University, kindergarten children are learning coding with specially created wooden blocks bearing bar codes used to program robots.  Learning the language of machines is thought to be as basic as writing is to proficiency in a foreign language.

Computational thinking is being promoted as a key to abstraction, critical thinking, and problem solving.  But with that comes the tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, and better than that obtained in other fields.  Unfortunately, this is a tendency that arises with any newly developed area of knowledge, which then begins to take over education as a whole.

Promoting new ideas as the answer to superior education has a long history.  When my children were in grade school, “new math” became the answer for teaching arithmetic to young children.  Tom Lehrer, the songwriter/entertainer, did a parody at that time which included the line, “base 8 is really just like base 10 – if you’re missing two fingers.”  The joke being that it created more confusion than understanding.

Another example is the introduction of sight-reading or whole words approach to teaching young children how to read.  For a time, teaching phonics was abandoned, to the detriment of many – if not most – children.  Without a knowledge of phonics there were no tools for tackling new words that had not been seen before.

The unintended consequences of throwing out the old in favor of something new are usually not foreseen until new problems are created.  There are avenues other than computational thinking to abstraction, critical thinking, and problem solving.  Educator Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value, which he believes comes about through different ways of seeing things.

A mother told me that her four-year-old son loves the Amazon children’s show, “Creative Galaxy,” and said with excitement, “Mom, everywhere you look there is art.”  She also reported that he later said, “An artist always wants to be doing art, even when it is not possible,” as she was trying to get him ready to leave the house.

Clearly, there are values nourished in ways other than computational thinking, which we have to make sure are preserved in our system of education.