Beyond Coding, to Computational Thinking for Children

By Chigozie Okeke

Written in 2017 this still very relevant piece explains how computational thinking is important for us all to understand.

You can find Chigozie, an Educator, Google Educator, Academic Data Analyst and Tech enthusiast, on twitter @g_okeke

Coding is the new “literacy”. Indeed, this is true. Until recently, the focus was on teaching students how to create word documents while we ignored the growth of computing and the Internet. This way, we were content for our children to remain consumers and not makers, also-rans and not champions on the technology stage.

Software is the language of today’s world. This is not to say that every job in the future will involve programming. For many, the world would become “zombie-land” if we all became software engineers. Beyond coding & building apps, the goal of this article is to promote computational thinking especially among children.

So, What is Computational Thinking

Computational thinking is how software engineers solve problems. It is a problem solving process that is essential to the development of computer applications, but can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including the humanities, math and science. It teaches children to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems (decomposition), observing patterns, trends, regularities (pattern recognition), identifying general principles responsible for these patterns (abstraction) and developing step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems (algorithm design).

Imagine a class activity where children were asked to create a recipe for a soup thinking carefully about each step/phase. The step-by-step sequence of instructions is an algorithm. When the children share their recipes and we spot patterns in them (this is called generalization). When we read several recipes and discuss the layers of simplification (abstraction) present in even the simplest recipes without going into much detail.

The applications of this approach stretch beyond writing code. In business, we are beginning to understand that markets often follow rules that can be discerned using this analysis. In literature, poems are analysed and broken down into rhyme, structure, diction; In economics, we find patterns in rise and drop in economies. Other fields such as engineering, biology, archaeology and music are also applying the computational approach.

Learning this skill is necessary for everyone. It allows you to tackle complex problems in any discipline and in efficient ways. You will also be able to create models of the real world with a suitable level of abstraction, and focus on pertinent aspects. They will go from specific solutions to general ones. Children who learn computational thinking can begin to see relationships between academic subjects, and life in-and-outside the classroom.