The Limitations of Computational Thinking: NYTimes

April 5, 2017 at 7:00 am 7 comments

The New York Times ran a pair of articles on computing education yesterday, one on Computational Thinking (linked above and quoted below) and one on the new AP CS Principles exam.  Shriram and I are quoted as offering a more curmudgeonly view on computational thinking.  (Yes, I fixed the name of my institution in the below quote, from what how it is phrased in the actual article.)

Despite his chosen field, Dr. Krishnamurthi worries about the current cultural tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, better than that gained in other fields. Right now, he said, “we are just overly intoxicated with computer science.”

It is certainly worth wondering if some applications of computational thinking are trivial, unnecessary or a Stepford Wife-like abdication of devilishly random judgment.

Alexander Torres, a senior majoring in English at Stanford, has noted how the campus’s proximity to Google has lured all but the rare student to computer science courses. He’s a holdout. But “I don’t see myself as having skills missing,” he said. In earning his degree he has practiced critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and making logical arguments. “When you are analyzing a Dickinson or Whitman or Melville, you have to unpack that language and synthesize it back.”

There is no reliable research showing that computing makes one more creative or more able to problem-solve. It won’t make you better at something unless that something is explicitly taught, said Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who studies computing in education. “You can’t prove a negative,” he said, but in decades of research no one has found that skills automatically transfer.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , , .

Elementary School Computer Science – Misconceptions and Developmental Progressions: Papers from SIGCSE 2017 Research Highlight: CRA Board Member Susanne Hambrusch

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Young  |  April 5, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I am sympathetic with Dr. Krishnamurthi when he says, “we are just overly intoxicated with computer science.” It seems to me that computational thinking is less distinguished and important than its advocates in industry suggest. We need young people to learn to engage critically with computers. I have written more at .

    • 2. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 6, 2017 at 5:30 pm

      That’s a pretty funny deconstruction. I prefer the term that Abelson and Sussman used in the preface to the first edition of SICP: _procedural epistemology_. It actually has meaning, it is accurate, it doesn’t overreach, nor is it fluff.

  • 3. Michael Kirkpatrick  |  April 6, 2017 at 10:18 am

    One of my favorite (classic) results on the issue of transfer is Chi’s work examining whether chess improves your general memory skills. (For those not familiar, no, it doesn’t.) I always bring up these and similar results when I hear people say things like, “Everybody should learn [insert crazy complex topic like differential equations or monads] because learning [CS or math] makes you a better thinker and smarter overall.”

    • 4. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 6, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      Very nice example. In general, Chi’s work on misconceptions and transfer is great. (Though it’s amusing that you mention diff eqs — we teach them to late middle-schoolers and they have no trouble with the concept. Sometimes not knowing something is supposed to be intimidating is half the game.)

  • […] a SIGCSE track this May.  Come see SIGCSE Chair Amber Settle, world-famous CS educator Dan Garcia (recently in NYTimes) from Berkeley, and me in Shanghai in […]

  • 6. Claudette Guy  |  April 28, 2017 at 10:51 am

    I do not disagree that students can learn critical thinking and problem solving in other subjects, and I don’t think any of those subjects should be short changed. To me, the key point of computational thinking is that students learn to solve problems using algorithms. In today’s schools K-12 students wrestle with problems and find solutions in other subjects, but they are not given opportunities to create solutions that can be executed by a computer. Data and software systems are so pervasive now, and successful members of society should have some basic understanding of theses skills as well as all the other things we are currently teaching students. I like to say, “We (the CS ed community) just want a seat at the education table.”

  • […] there. I talk about these in my book, I reference the Palumbo meta-review in this blog post, and NYTimes wrote about it this last spring. Like “learning styles” and “Latin teaches thinking,” this is a persistent myth that we […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,185 other subscribers


Recent Posts

Blog Stats

  • 2,060,428 hits
April 2017

CS Teaching Tips

%d bloggers like this: