What does it mean to assess Computational Thinking?
One of the arguments I develop in my book on learner-centered design of computing education is that computational thinking, using Jeannette Wing’s description, is implausible. There’s part of her description that talks about computing providing a medium for advancing thinking and learning in other domains — that’s the application part of computing, and that’s quite plausible. I call that part computational literacy because that’s the name Andrea diSessa gave to that idea years ago. Much of my book is about how to help students (of all kinds, from graphic designers to teachers to undergraduates) develop computational literacy. Then there’s the part of Jeannette’s description that suggests that learning computing will impact everyday thinking and problem-solving, e.g., people will use ideas about caching when packing for a trip. There is no evidence to support the belief that that will happen. Many studies investigating this kind of impact have not found that effect. (I’ve reported in the past how educational psychologists find computational thinking implausible.) Sure, there other definitions of computational thinking (I reference the others in my book), but they all have this same thread — computational thinking is about thinking that helps outside of computing.
So what does it mean to assess computational thinking? Most computational thinking assessments I’ve seen fail to connect the computing to some other discipline. For both of Wing’s sets of goals, we need to show that students are learning computing. That’s a necessary part — if you don’t know computing, you can’t apply that knowledge and you can’t transfer it. But it’s not sufficient. Students must be applying, connecting, or transferring the computing knowledge to other domains to be computational thinking.
SRI is developing a set of computational thinking assessments. From poking through their website, I’m not finding any examples, so I don’t know if they succeed where others have not. Their process is promising.
As part of the NSF-funded Principled Assessment of Computational Thinking (PACT) suite of projects, SRI Education has been working with curriculum authors and teachers, assessment experts, and computer scientists to develop assessments for ECS.
ECS emphasizes inquiry-based teaching to develop students’ problem solving skills, as well as their abilities to explain, elaborate, and evaluate what they are learning, often using multiple representations of particular solutions. These skills go well beyond recalling facts or giving inputs to a program and predicting its outputs. As a result, the SRI PACT team had to design and develop assessment tasks that elicited students’ problem solving and inquiry skills in authentic contexts and gave them opportunities to represent their skills in their own words and ways.
Applying a principled design method, the team first developed generalized design templates for computational thinking practices. These practices refer to how students design and implement creative solutions and artifacts, how they design and apply abstractions and models, and how they analyze their computational work and the work of others (among other practices). We then used these templates to guide the development of assessment tasks and scoring rubrics aligned with the skills related to the learning goals of the ECS curriculum.