Computational Thinking (CT) is emerging as a new key intellectual skill for children. In a 2021 ACM paper called Computational Thinking in PreK-5: Empirical Evidence for Integration and Future Directions outlines the case for teaching CT to young students, but integrating into lessons is still difficult.

At its most fundamental, CT is a way of thinking about problems that was originally designed to create computer programs. It’s the process of breaking down a large problem into small, simple chunks that a computer can understand and from which it can identify patterns that make those problems easier to solve. But CT has moved far beyond computers and is increasingly used in many fields to solve complicated problems.

The term Computational Thinking, along with the idea of teaching it to young students, originated in a 2006 essay by Jeannette Wing, a professor of Computer Science at Columbia. It was widely read and became the onboarding point for many people.

The field has identified these four key techniques to computational thinking:

Decomposition – Students break down complex problems into smaller, simpler problems. 

Pattern recognition – Students make connections between similarities and regularities in problems. 

Algorithms – Students design simple steps or instructions to solve problems.

Abstraction – Students identify important information in the problem while ignoring unrelated or irrelevant details.

Any child who has successfully played a video game likely has an intuitive understanding of CT. Video games these days start with small easy steps aimed at teaching the player how to navigate the world. Here is how you throw Mario’s hat and here’s how you jump. Then they combine the steps to allow the player to do new things, like diving into Mario’s hat to gain distance. So teaching CT only requires taking things that kids have experienced unconsciously and giving them names and structure. Kinda like the first time you learned what a “direct object” was in language.

Here is an video of an elementary school class learning CT using this lesson plan:

CT can be taught at every grade level. Any problem that comes up in a classroom can be turned into an opportunity to teach CT. 

Teaching Decomposition

Decomposition is breaking down complex problems into smaller, more manageable chunks.  With young children, you can teach decomposition by turning the tables and having them give you instructions on how to do something simple like brushing your teeth. They will need to break down the task into small simple steps. If you exactly follow their instructions, they will realize which steps are missing and the importance of including them in the instruction.

Teaching Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition is a cornerstone of computational thinking. Patterns in nature, such as pictures of animals, work well for pattern recognition. Even young children can pick out different animals so having them list qualities that all cats have in common can be helpful. Dogs can sometimes be problematic to use as an example because breeds can be so different from one another but they can be useful as a counter example. “Here is a picture of my pomeranian Max. He is small and has ears and a tail. Is he a cat?” 

Finding patterns simplifies tasks because you can use what you already know. By teaching students to recognize patterns, their awareness of the world around them expands. This helps them to use the patterns they have identified to solve future problems and make predictions about the world.

Teaching Abstraction

Abstraction is focusing on the information that is relevant and important. It involves separating core information from extraneous details.It is a valuable skill as students read larger texts and are presented with more and more complex information. Teachers naturally teach kids the concept of abstraction with literature as they identify the main idea and key details in a story. 

Even at the youngest ages, teachers can pause during reading aloud and ask questions about important information that has been revealed in the story. Teachers can also treat reading like a treasure hunt, encouraging students to hunt for information by giving them a goal as they begin reading a book.

Teaching Algorithms

The word algorithm is used mainly in relation to computers and coding but an algorithm is nothing more than a set of instructions. Recipes in cooking, equations in Math, and rules in a game of baseball are all algorithms. Algorithmic thinking involves developing solutions to a problem. Specifically, it creates sequential rules to follow in order to solve a problem. Both the instructions and the order they are followed can have an effect on the outcome.

Just as with teaching decomposition, having students write out a set of simple instructions and watch someone else follow them can help students understand how to create instructions. To get students thinking in algorithms, create simple treasure hunt around the classroom with one group writing the instructions and the other group following them can be useful, especially if they have to find items and make a tower at the end that will not stand unless the items are stacked in the correct order. 

CT thinking expands after students learn the 4 key concepts of computational thinkers. Teachers can include the additional concepts of logic and evaluation so students can break down any problem and figure out how to solve it.

Teaching young students computational thinking strategies goes far beyond increasing their comfort level with computers.We are surrounded with all kinds of smart technology, and understanding how devices work allows us to approach technology as a partner to help us solve problems. Computational thinking allows students to be active, rather than passive, users of technology. Preparation for this should start with our youngest learners.

Here are some resources for parents and teachers to get started:

Exploring Computational Thinking – Created by Google, this free course is a great overview to help educators get started.

Computer Science Without a Computer – A great resource for teachers and parents. Lessons are broken down by grade level and includes worksheets to print out,  and a number of colorful easy to use lessons and activities.

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