Getting Started with Computational Thinking

In Practice

What's the major change in the Computing curriculum?

At the heart of the new statutory Programmes of Study is Computational Thinking. The opening paragraph of the National Curriculum for Computing says:

"A high quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world."

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Computational Thinking is essentially a thought process that underpins every aspects of the Computing curriculum. It should be considered whenever planning Computing lessons and learners’ attainment and progression are being assessed.

Purpose of Study

"A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. Computing has deep links with mathematics, science and design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world."

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What is Computational Thinking?

We believe the most suitable classroom definition has been selected by the CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers:

"… the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be effectively carried out by an information-processing agent".

(Cuny, Snyder, Wing, 2010, cited in Wing 2011, p.20)

Wing indicates that these solutions can be carried out by any processing agent, whether human, computer, or a combination of both. (Wing 2006)

Page 5 of the CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers goes on to explain that Computational Thinking is a framework for studying Computing, which can also have applications in other curriculum subjects; by applying techniques used in Computing to understand and reason about the natural, social and artificial systems and processes.

"It allows the pupils to understand the digital world in a deeper way, just as physics equips pupils to better understand the physical world and a modern foreign language equips pupils to gain a richer understanding of other cultures."

(Page 5, CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers)

Both the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and Google Education are undertaking interesting work in developing Computational Thinking across other subjects for further details refer to the Further Reading list at the bottom of this FAQ document.

What does computational thinking look like in the classroom?

The Computational Thinking framework that is outlined in the CAS Computational Thinking Teachers' Guidance is an excellent starting place. With this guidance, it is now possible to embed Computational Thinking into lesson planning, and to identify and evidence Computational Thinking in the classroom.

Like any thinking skill, it is important to provide learners with opportunities to develop them. This will require teachers to model tasks for learners with a range of scaffolded activities - gradually providing greater independence to learners (i.e. by gradually removing the scaffolds) each time it is revisited, with learners being encouraged to apply these thinking skills in a projects based learning curriculum.

When these thinking skills have been mastered, it provides for a more learner-lead (enquiry based) learning. Using the CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers and teaching resources from projects, such as, the CAS Barefoot Computing and the Digital Schoolhouse – you can make this a reality in your classrooms!

For clarification on how a Computational Thinking classroom adheres to the current Ofsted guidance on lesson observations read the Managing the transition from ICT to Computing guidance form Innovate My Curriculum.

For further explanation of how you can assess Computing lessons with Computational Thinking embedded, read the Innovate My Curriculum Managing Key Stage 1 - 3 Assessment document.

Computational thinking sits at the heart of the curriculum, but why is it important?

The CSTA’s (Computer Science Teachers Association) explanation of why Computational Thinking is so important in the classroom provides a useful overview. They suggest that in learners it helps to build:

  • Confidence in dealing with complexity
  • Persistence in working with difficult problems
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • The ability to deal with open-ended problems
  • The ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution

Greg Michaelson explains that this is made possible because "Computational Thinking is a framework, not a recipe" and goes on to describe how it provides a guide to thinking about:

  • The thought process to ask good questions
  • Characterising and understanding a problem
  • How to guide computational design

These attributes described by the CSTA can be developed when applying the advice on planning in this series of guidance (focusing on 'why' not 'what') and we believe can help teachers and schools to demonstrate and evidence the Ofsted Inspection Handbook on page 60 (paragraph 191) which says:

"children’s enjoyment of learning, including their participation and willingness to make choices and decisions, and the extent to which children are active and inquisitive learners who are creative and think critically".

Is there a conceptual model of Computational Thinking to help me understand it?

The CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers has been written by a working group of practicing teachers and academics, based on their experiences, all of whom were keen to support the introduction and embedding of Computing and Computational Thinking into the curriculum.

The Computational Thinking framework within the CAS Computational Thinking Guidance for Teachers has 4 stages:

  • Stage 1: A definition
  • Stage 2: Sets of concepts
  • Stage 3: Specific thinking skills
  • Stage 4: opportunities to use them identified across the full breath and depth of the curriculum using the Computing Progression Pathways

Is Computational Thinking only relevant to computer science?

No. Computational Thinking is a set of thinking skills that underpins the entire Computing curriculum i.e. Computer Science, Information Technology and Digital Literacy. The Computing Progression Pathways identifies the Computational Thinking opportunities across the entire Computing curriculum.

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The Computing Progression Pathways incorporates the concepts of computational thinking using the initials into the framework:

  • AL for Algorithm
  • DE for Decomposition
  • GE for Generalisation (Patterns)
  • AB for Abstraction
  • EV for Evaluation

There are up to 5 codes (AB, DE, AL, EV and GE) behind each of the learning statements in the Computing Progression Pathways. These relate to the Computational Thinking opportunities available to be developed learners when undertaking classroom activities based on each of the statements.

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Learn more about how the Computing Progression Pathways and how it can support the process of identifying, delivering and evidencing Computational Thinking opportunities and capabilities in Guidance for Planning for Key Stage 1-3.

I can't find any learning journeys entitled Computational Thinking?

Computational Thinking is a thought process that is the core to the learners’ learning of the entire subject of Computing. As the National Curriculum Programmes of Study state, it should be at the heart of all Computing and present across all learning in the subject. Therefore, it is advisable not to search for learning journeys entitled 'Introduction to Computational Thinking'.

Further Reading

Computational Thinking

Using Innovate My Curriculum, Identifying the computational thinking skills (Step 4)

Guidance for senior leaders and computing leads, Planning for Key Stage 1 – 3

Guidance for senior leaders and computing leads, 7b Computing Progression Pathways

Computing At School, Computational thinking Primary and Secondary teacher guidance
(Primary and Secondary)

QuickStart Primary Computing, Introduction to computational thinking
(Primary and Secondary)

Papert, S. and Harel, I., ‘Situating Constructionism’ (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991)
(Primary and Secondary)

QuickStart Primary Computing, Introduction to logical reasoning
(Primary and Secondary)

Bebras International Contest on Informatics and Computer Fluency and Computational Thinking Challenge and

Other Reading

Communications of the ACM, Computational Thinking by Jeanette Wing
(Primary and Secondary)

Selby, C. & Woollard, J. Computational Thinking: The Developing Definition.
(Primary and Secondary)

Selby, C., Dorling. M, & Woollard, J. Evidence of Assessing Computational Thinking
(Primary and Secondary)

CSTA, What does computational thinking develop in learners
(Primary and Secondary)