Computational thinking abstracts too far from the computer: We should teach CS with inquiry

December 10, 2018 at 7:00 am 3 comments

Judy Robertson has a blog post that I really enjoyed: What Children Want to Know About Computers. She argues that computational thinking has abstracted too far away from what students really want to know about, the machine.

Computational thinking has been a hugely successful idea and is now taught at school in many countries across the world. Although I welcome the positioning of computer science as a respectable, influential intellectual discipline, in my view computational thinking has abstracted us too far away from the heart of computation – the machine. The world would be a tedious place if we had to do all our computational thinking ourselves; that’s why we invented computers in the first place. Yet, the new school curricula across the world have lost focus on hardware and how code executes on it.

Her post includes pictures drawn by children about what they think is going on inside of the computer.  They’re interested in these things!  We should teach them about it.  One of the strongest findings in modern science education is that inquiry works. Students learn science well if it’s based in the things that they want to know. Judy argues that kids want to know about the computer and how code executes on the computer. We shouldn’t be abstracting away from that. We should be teaching what the kids most want to learn.

To be clear, I am not criticizing the children, who were curious, interested and made perfectly reasonable inferences based on the facts they picked up in their everyday lives. But I think that computer science educators can do better here. Our discipline is built upon the remarkable fact that we can write instructions in a representation which makes sense to humans and then automatically translate them into an equivalent representation which can be followed by a machine dumbly switching electrical pulses on and off. Children are not going to be able to figure that out for themselves by dissecting old computers or by making the Scratch cat dance. We need to get better at explicitly explaining this in interesting ways.

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Maybe there’s more than one kind of Computational Thinking, but that makes research difficult What is programming-as-literacy, what does it look like, and what should we worry about? Alan Kay in Scientific American

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cheri B.  |  December 10, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    This is what I love about the Hello Ruby books and resources for young children. “What exactly is a computer? How does it work? What is it made of? Learn all this and more with Ruby!” There are amazing resources for educators to teach children about hardware, the internet, coding, and more.

  • 2. Clark Scholten  |  December 10, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    I see the same thing in my high school freshman Exploring CS class. Students enjoy some of the unplugged activities but if we spend too many days on the abstract concepts, they begin to get bored and frustrated and want to “start doing something real”.

  • 3. Mike Wirth  |  December 11, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    Had a fun time with my (then) 7-yr old grandson taking apart an old laptop. Mechanically inclined, he loved removing the tiny little screws and seeing how things came apart. (Sort of the modern day version of the curious kid taking apart a watch.) Insisted on taking a bag full of the parts with him (after I removed the sharp bits) when he left.
    Even more fun later seeing pictures of him and his 4-yr older brother, putting the pieces together in inventive ways and explaining “how a computer works”.
    Yes, physical artifacts are useful to make abstract concepts concrete 🙂



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