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Computational Thinking in Education from K to 12: Time to embrace and use to transform the curriculum?

There is a growing awareness, especially amongst IT professionals, career advisors and even parents of school-aged children, that Computational Thinking (CT) needs to be a part of education across the whole Primary and Secondary educational landscape, not just a part of optional IT subjects in the Senior High School years.

This does not necessary mean that Coding (a central part of CT) should be taught across all grades, but that the thought processes and techniques of CT need to be taught and embedded into most subject offerings and classes at all levels. ct pres splc

Here’s a couple of good quotes that make this point well:

“… Now that we can outsource so many things to our computers, we’ve freed up a lot of brainspace and time to use and develop our creative, collaborative, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills — all of which we desperately need to find innovative solutions to the complex problems we face in modern life.

“We keep hearing all the time that we’re getting kids ready for a world that we don’t know exactly what they’re going to need,” said Barry Bachenheimer, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale, New Jersey.

“What we want to do is more inquiry, more engagement, more thinking on the part of our kids, and technology becomes the lever to make that happen.”

Here’s where it really gets interesting. If applying technology to lower-order skills boosts our capacity for innovation, what might we accomplish if we combine computing power with our higher-order thinking skills? That’s what computational thinking (CT) is all about.

Computational thinking is not a skill per se. It’s a cognitive approach that encompasses a whole suite of digital age capabilities and puts them into context so that we can use them to their full potential.[1]


“… Parents across the U.S. are eager for their children to learn coding and other computer-science skills, but their message hasn’t yet hit the in-box of school administrators.

That’s the finding of a new Gallup study commissioned by Google that spotlights a potentially perilous economic disconnect as tech companies struggle to enlarge their engineering talent pools.

… Among key and contrasting findings: while 90% of parents see computer science, or CS, as “a good use of school resources” (and 67% say CS should be required learning alongside other core classes), fewer than 8% of administrators believe parent demand is high. … Three quarters of principals report no CS programs in their school.[2]

I believe that the evidence is extremely strong that Digital Technologies should be a separate core subject in Years 7 through to 10. This evidence is not only from peak IT Educational bodies, but from all the leading IT Professional associations; from our leading politicians; as well as from the experiences in the USA, New Zealand and the UK in particular.

Some quotes that highlight this understanding:

Australian Council for Computers in Education:
”It would be a threat to Australia’s economic future if Australian students are excluded from being able to fully contribute to such innovations by a curriculum that limits their learning about digital technologies to a comparably superficial treatment in the senior years of schooling.

Students in other countries will be advantaged by a developmental curriculum throughout their schooling. We do not expect students studying mathematics or science to start their studies in upper secondary for the same good reasons. …

For Australia to have a world class, 21st Century curriculum, students should have the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with how they can develop digital solutions that improve their lives and solve problems that increase in complexity over time.

To deeply embed this understanding and capacity to creatively develop digital solutions throughout their schooling, and in doing so, enable them with the ability to make considered study and career choices that involve the many facets of digital technologies, be they in information technology, science, the media, service, construction, medicine, arts, entertainment, law, teaching, politics, or any other career.

ACCE strongly recommends the government consults more widely with industry and professional groups such as the Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE), Australian Computer Society (ACS), Australian Information Industries Association (AIIA), and Digital Careers, and relevant government departments, to resolve how Digital Technologies can be included as a core subject in a 21st Century Australian Curriculum.”

The Australian Computer Society (ACS):
“The ACS strongly endorses the creation of the digital technologies subject and notes the important distinction of this subject from the role of ICT as a general capability.

Both aspects are critically important in the education of students, but the distinction between them is vital for individual students and for Australia as a nation.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry:
Jenny Lambert, Employment, Education and Training Director says digital literacy is clearly a “critical capability” for business. “Common sense would suggest that school students be exposed and increasingly skilled in digital technologies from a young age,” she says.

Bill Shorten, Leader of the Federal Opposition (Australia):
New jobs of the future require new skills. Designing skills, coding skills – building, refining, adapting and servicing the machines and supply chains of a new age.”

Shorten said that “three out of every four” of the fastest growing occupations in Australia required STEM skills, and yet the number of students attaining those skills remained low.

But Shorten indicated he wanted students’ exposure to STEM fields to begin at a much earlier age – echoing the calls of ACS president Brenda Aynsley and mathematician and broadcaster Adam Spencer.

“Digital technologies, computer science and coding – the language of computers and technology – should be taught in every primary and ever secondary school in Australia,” Shorten said.

“Coding is the literacy of the 21st Century. And under Labor, every young Australian will have the chance to read, write and work with the global language of the digital age.”

“In the UK, the Government has worked collaboratively with the British Computer Society and the ICT industry to help train teachers who can then go on to teach coding. It is already happening over there and we and the business community stand ready to work with the political parties to get this underway in Australia, so we can start building a skilled digital workforce for the future”.

Given the issues raised in a recent review the ACCE has acknowledged that some consideration could be given by schools to combine the ACARA Digital Technologies stream with Design & Technologies stream:

However, I see this compromise in an effort to reduce the overall ‘crowding’ of the curriculum to be misguided and ultimately detrimental to the major focus that now needs to be placed on Computational Thinking (of which ‘coding’ is a core foundation), throughout Primary and Secondary schooling from K-12.

I wrote a short article/blog post on this ACARA review when it was first published in October last year.

This can be read here: https://computationalthinkingk12.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/review-of-acara-digital-technologies-curriculum/

I think a major distinction that needs to be made within all the disciplines associated with  STEM, is that it is Digital Technologies that most fully and completely addresses the need to teach Computational Thinking.

While a lot of the Design Thinking and problem solving aspects can be embedded and taught through all the other Technology disciplines, and through the disciplines of Mathematics and Science, it is only Digital Technologies that focusses on ‘coding’ in a practical and in-depth manner to most fully educate students in the vital 21st century skills inherent in Computational Thinking.

I believe that this aspect can enable us to leverage Digital Technologies and specifically, Computational Thinking with a ‘Real-World’ Project Based Learning approach that has the potential to revolutionise the field of STEM and even perhaps, the whole curriculum at the Senior School level.

This proposal was the main focus of my Keynote at the Future Schools conference in Sydney earlier this year[3].

A version of my talk is also now available via the Independent Schools NPN[4].

I think a major part of the problem in being open to the possibilities is that our ‘Educator’s Mindset’ has not caught up with the true reality of the current age and the increasingly digitalised future.

I think this quote from a past student of mine, Anna Emmerson (Class of 2007), who is now a Software Engineer for Google in Sydney gives a little insight into how our thinking needs to change:

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to cure cancer, you would have gone into medicine, but if you want to cure cancer today you should go into software engineering. The possibilities are endless.”

I believe that rather than Digital Technologies being seen as a sort of afterthought, and non-core subject at Years 7-10, it now needs to be seen that it is as vital and foundational as learning English, and perhaps even more important than the traditional Mathematics curriculum as it currently stands.

Rather than struggling to fit CT into a crowded curriculum, I believe the vision, time, opportunity and environment, is now ready and able to transform the curriculum, especially at the Secondary School level, to one built around its core Computational (and Design) Thinking paradigms.

The question is, are our school administrators ready to take up this challenge?

Paul Herring

September 2015

[1] https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=232&category=Featured-videos&article=Computational+thinking+boosts+students%E2%80%99+higher-order+skills
[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/08/20/google-gallup-poll-finds-parents-want-computer-science-education-but-administrators-arent-sure/31991889/
[3] Search for ‘The Four Step Approach to Computational Thinking’ at http://www.ed-tv.com.au/
[4] See https://dmr.ttedsc.edu.au/AnonymousEmbed/FRIGT0kz9qhCo7SunoiW0g%3d%3d


2 thoughts on “Computational Thinking in Education from K to 12: Time to embrace and use to transform the curriculum?

  1. The most popular major for women at Stanford University in the USA is now Computer Science – perhaps this will filter down (eventually!) to girls in high school in Australia!! Let’s hope!


    Posted by thinkingcomputationally | October 13, 2015, 3:38 pm


  1. Pingback: Computational Thinking in Education from K to 1... - September 18, 2015

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