Computational thinking is the code to success

The computer-based problem-solving process is so powerful in addressing real-life challenges that it should be a core educational subject, argues one technologist
13th January 2017, 12:00am
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Computational thinking is the code to success

An idea formed more than 35 years ago in the US - “computational thinking” - has recently re-emerged, with many on both sides of the Atlantic now going so far as suggesting that it should be introduced into schools as a central imperative in everything they do.

But what is it? And are such broad-ranging claims really justified? And how might it relate to today’s school curriculum and subjects, particularly coding and maths?

If you accept, as I do, that the overriding purpose of education is to enrich life (yours, your society’s, not just in riches but also in meaning) then new approaches that enable you to understand, challenge and embrace opportunities seem crucial.

Computational thinking cuts across boundaries in this way while both supporting traditional school subjects and emphasising a new way to approach them - how could that not be valuable?

Then there’s computation itself. It’s a highly definitive set of methodologies - a system for getting answers from questions, one rapidly gaining in power and applicability each year. I’d go even further and argue that since the mid-20th century, the rise of mechanised computation is the biggest underlying driver of human progress, and there’s much more of it to come.

This puts computational thinking in a different league to “critical” thinking. There is no parallel world-empowering “critic” system, with critiquing more an aspiration of student capability, and not a systematic road map to get answers.

So the term computational thinking is off to a good start as an essential of education.

But what is it?

Empower everyone

Here’s how I’d boil it down: it’s a four-step problem-solving process of firstly - Step 1 - defining questions, so - in Step 2 - they can be translated into an abstract form ready for “computation” - Step 3 - to be applied to get an answer, albeit one that - in step 4 - needs interpreting into a real, human answer for the question you’d originally defined. That’s the quick outline, anyway.

The main point of computational-thinking education should be to empower everyone to creatively and cleverly use this powerful tool of computation - with the essential machinery of computers - as a key approach to ideas, challenges and opportunities they encounter in life. The broader and more instinctive that its use becomes, the better.

This should sound like maths but to most people, it doesn’t. Yet in today’s real-world applications, it’s very closely connected: using maths relies on computational thinking, and many practical uses of computational thinking rely on maths. Computational thinking is the process I describe, where maths is a domain of factual knowledge as well as the skills and knowledge of how to process it.

But however we term the real-world need - whether it’s maths, computer-based maths or computational thinking - what’s all too clear is that today’s mainstream educational subject isn’t remotely meeting that real-world need.

Someday, this will emerge as a core, unbigquitous school subject

The focus of maths education on teaching how to do calculations by hand might have made sense when that was the sticking point in applying maths in life: because if you couldn’t do the calculating, you couldn’t use maths or much computational thinking.

It’s the other three steps of the computational-thinking process that more critically need human expertise. Tomorrow’s mainstream maths subject cannot be primarily for gaining experience in uncontextualised, pre-computer application of the computational process. Why? Because that’s so very different from the needs of today’s faster-paced, experimental approach for real, messy problems that can only be solved with a computer.

Paradoxically, the latter requires richer human qualities of creativity and conceptual understanding and must be the primary educational purpose; the magic is in optimising how process, computer and human knowledge can be put together to solve increasingly tough problems.

Coding, like real-world maths, relies on computational thinking, but again it isn’t the same subject or (by most definitions) a complete route to it.

You need computational thinking for figuring out how to extract problems to code and get the computer to do what you want, but coding is the art of instructing a computer what to do, it’s the expertise needed for being the sophisticated manager of your computing technology which includes speaking a sensible coding language, or several, to your computer.

Crossing boundaries

What of other school subjects? Computational thinking should be applicable to a very wide range. After all, it’s a way of thinking - not the only way of thinking - but an important perspective across life. Whether in design (“How can I design a streamlined cycle helmet?”) or history (“What was the key message each president’s inaugural address delivered?”) or music (”How did Bach’s use of motifs change over his career?”), every subject should envelop a computational-thinking approach.

An important practical question is, can that happen without a core educational subject of the learning of computational thinking itself?

Much discussion in the US appears to assume it can, but I don’t think so - not at school level anyway. That’s because the computational-thinking approach needs knowledge of what’s possible, experience of how you can apply it, and know-how of today’s machinery for performing it. You need to know which concepts and tools there are available. I don’t think you can only learn this in other subjects; there needs to be an anchor where these modern-day basics (learned in a contextualised way) can be fostered.

This is a profound change, not a change of emphasis that teachers can effect solely by themselves.

Politically, there are two primary ways to achieve it: introducing a new core subject or transforming an existing one. Either is a major undertaking, with just-created coding or long-established maths as the only possible existing school subject contenders for the transformational route.

Maths, of course, is a ubiquitous subject; well-resourced, it occupies a big part of the curriculum. But today’s subject largely misses the mark. Sadly, its name is becoming rather toxic, too. Coding is the new kid on the block, too narrow, not fully established and with far less time or money but with a zeal to go to new places.

Make no mistake. Whatever the politics or naming, whoever wins or loses - someday a core, ubiquitous school subject in the space I’m describing will emerge. The first countries, regions, schools that manage this new core and its cross-curricular application will win. And win big.

Conrad Wolfram founded to rebuild the maths curriculum for the age of universal computing. He is also European CEO/co-founder of Wolfram Research Europe.

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