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Using Computational Thinking to Teach a New Generation of Problem Solvers

Teaching computational thinking exposes little ones to big ideas before stereotypes take hold and helps them solve problems creatively.
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These days, teaching, and just getting up in the morning, can feel daunting.

Even so, a time of great upheaval can be an excellent moment to be bold and experiment with new ways of teaching, whether in a classroom (virtual or otherwise) or in an informal learning environment like a public library.

On listservs, social media and sites like this one, one can find a variety of examples of educators finding new ways to support kids and their families with offline and digital tools and embedded in many of these innovative strategies is the idea of computational thinking (CT).

But what is computational thinking, exactly?

A young mother and child work on a computer together. iStock
Preschoolers are naturally curious and learn rapidly about the world around them, so teaching CT then is key. | Getty Images

According to GBH, computational thinking is a “creative problem-solving process” but it is also a mindset that empowers critical thinkers, innovators, effective communicators and lifelong learners. Increasingly, it’s becoming part of school curriculum for older kids and teens, especially as computer science classes and coding initiatives become more commonplace. It may sound complex, but many caregivers and educators do it almost intuitively. It’s not just for computer programmers — or teens for that matter — and it’s not the same as computer science.

The set of skills commonly associated with CT by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) and others, can be applied to a range of fields and includes: decomposition, abstraction, logic, algorithm design, pattern recognition and evaluation. Dispositions or attitudes that contribute to computational thinking are confidence, persistence, tolerance, the ability to deal with open-ended problems and the ability to communicate and collaborate with others (these are described in more detail in a paper I recently co-authored on the subject). Scientists use computational thinking to create solutions to big problems, such as developing a COVID-19 vaccine, for example. We also use CT skills and dispositions to analyze a news article for accuracy or to find our way with a map.

They build, explore, create and imagine. In classrooms, libraries and childcare environments, educators feed this curiosity as well as model and introduce new ideas, tools and skills. Introducing computational thinking to young children through developmentally appropriate activities exposes them to big ideas before stereotypes take hold about what they can and can’t do. This is especially important at a time when successful solutions to today’s — and tomorrow’s — problems require inclusive approaches created by experienced problem solvers with a variety of perspectives.

With the support of caring grown-ups, all young children, even infants and toddlers, can utilize emerging CT to solve the problems before them. Laying a foundation for computational thinking in the early years — an emerging CT mindset — positions children for later success no matter what challenges lie ahead.

CT skills and dispositions are similar to the life skills many whole child development experts consider important for children to learn. Caregivers and educators often already, perhaps unintentionally, support computational thinking; for example, when we build a tower from wooden toy blocks, decode words to read a story, or bake a cake from a recipe with young children

Intentionally incorporating CT into learning throughout the life of a young person can provide them more opportunities to apply CT to their individual experiences and academic pursuits. At the end of the paper, we highlight several examples of play-based activities for young children that intentionally integrate CT including toddler play sessions, preschool story time, a Lego Club and a digital storytelling program for families. In a recent blog post, we augmented these examples with remote and virtual activities library staff are currently hosting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Computational thinking may seem like a natural fit for the school setting, but less likely to be part of learning in libraries, afterschool programs or museums. With its ties to 21st century competencies, connection to whole child development and prevalence in many early childhood activities, CT can and should be intentionally integrated into experiences throughout a young person’s learning. Community-wide understanding of CT and how it can be integrated into early learning provides multiple entry points into these new ideas and activities for all kids. Staff at libraries and other informal learning spaces can introduce the skills and dispositions to young children in play-based activities alongside early literacy and early math, helping prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. They are also well-versed at enveloping caregivers — children’s first teachers — into the learning process during story time and other family learning programs. These grownups may not be familiar with CT either but libraries can provide learning experiences for the whole family that prepare them to practice CT skills and dispositions with their little ones in culturally relevant ways at home.

For more on CT, read the full paper below:

"Making the Connection: Computational Thinking and Early Learning for Young Children and Their Families" by Kathleen Campana, Claudia Haines, Paula Langsam and Jacquie Kociubuk

The authors wish to thank their advisory board: Susie Grimm (PBS SoCal), Shimira WilliamsJerry Fails and members of the Public Libraries Association Family Engagement Task Force

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