NRC Non-Statement on What is Computational Thinking

June 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm 2 comments

I read the new National Research Council report on what is Computational Thinking on the way out here to Berkeley (for the ACM Education Council meeting).  It was fascinating but a little disappointing.  As Marcia Linn explains in Preface to the report, the goal wasn’t to create and present a consensus view of what is computational thinking.  Instead, the report simply presents the discussion, the lack of consensus, with lots of argument and dialogue.  I found the discussion really interesting with some wonderful speakers presented.  I didn’t come away with any answers, though.

I was particularly pleased to read a revisiting of the NRC Fluency with IT report (sometimes called the “FITness Report”), led by Larry Snyder.  There are lots of people creating “information technology fluency” classes, but they often get it wrong.  As this report describes, the FITness report does call for programming — maybe in a domain specific language, maybe even in Excel, but definitely in a precise and testable way.

Some of my favorite parts of the report:

  • The discussion of the 2004 NRC report on what is computer science, which quotes Gerald Sussman saying “Computer science is not a science, and its ultimate significance has little to do with computers.  The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and in the way we express what we think.”
  • Alan Collins (who significantly influenced my dissertation work) whom I haven’t heard much from recently, was there and emphasized the importance of “representational competence, which he described as the effective application of computational means of representation of knowledge.”
  • The discussion of modeling is really interesting.  Uri Wilensky and Yasmin Kafai spoke of the importance of having students learn to critique models and question assumptions of models.
  • The report quotes Donald Knuth and Fred Brooks (in previously published work) and includes Alan Kay and Roy Pea who were at the event.

The report does get to what I see as one of the key questions of computational thinking.  Asking “What is Computational Thinking?” doesn’t make much sense by itself.  It’s more interesting to ask it in terms of outcomes, “What does computing education for everyone mean and what does such education offer?”  The report does speak to the key question, “Who is ‘everyone‘?”  Thinking about K-12 students as ‘everyone’ leads to one kind of focus on computational thinking, thinking about science and engineering majors leads to another, and thinking about college vs. non-college attending citizens leads to different emphases in computational thinking. The report doesn’t answer the question of who ‘everyone‘ is.  A key contribution of this report is to highlight that question and point out some of the different answers and the implications of each answer.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  June 21, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    It’s not always that case that the report of a meeting differs in large respects from what was generally going on, but in this case I really didn’t recognize the account of this meeting, despite being there (and as far as I know, staying awake).

    I agreed with Sussman that “CS is not an S” insofar as how it is taught today, but there is certainly a real S lurking there, and some people have actually practiced it.

    Very little of what Mitchel Resnick (or I) said was reported.

    My view on this was that the people present were generally quite a bit better than the sum of the meeting.



  • […] this summer, I read two posts by Mark Guzdial on computational thinking: NRC Non-Statement on What is Computational Thinking and Go to the Data: Two stories of (really) […]


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