Computational thinking – can everyone get it?

“Do you think there are some people who can’t learn the skill computational thinking?” asked Dr Quintin Cutts at the annual Computing at School conference in Birmingham last week. Those in the room, a groups of committed professionals all involved in the teaching and learning of Computing, were invited to raise their hands if they agreed. My hand stayed down, but to my surprise, opinion in the room was split 50/50.

Given that Computing is a National Curriculum subject from September 2014, that all children will cover until at least Key Stage 3, this seems concerning at the very least. The ability to think computationally is a key skill that learners need to meet the objectives in the new PoS.

So what is meant by Computational Thinking? Jane Briggs, from the Somerset eLIM team, has drawn on the research presented by Jeanette Wing, and defined Computational Thinking as a mixture of attitudes and skills.

Making mistakes

Pattern recognition
Algorithm design
Abstraction and Generalisation

Further information on this can be found at the Somerset eLIM website

Looking at these lists, it’s clear that some children will find that that attitudes listed will come naturally to them. Anyone who has learned a musical instrument will certainly have developed their perseverance when practising scales and arpeggios. A member of a sports team will be finding out how much more can be achieved through playing together rather than individually. For others, it may be that at the first sign of mistakes, frustration or lack of confidence creeps in, and that they will need these attitudes nurturing.

Incidentally, as an aside, Miles Berry, in his opening keynote, reminded all those at the conference of the inclusive nature of the Computing curriculum: that it is for every learner. Children on the autistic spectrum, who are classed as having additional needs, somehow seem to “get” Computational Thinking and seem to have a natural aptitude for the skills such as pattern recognition and algorithm design. Of course the autistic spectrum is just that: a spectrum of differing abilities and it would be wrong to overgeneralise. But it’s worth realising that sometimes our “special needs” children may be leading the way this time.

Dr Cutts went on to explain about the threshold concepts for Computational Thinking – particularly the transformative concept. Once you have learned to think computationally, it is very difficult to remember what it’s like to not be able to! There is a tremendous challenge for teachers of Computing here. We are teaching a mindset that now comes so naturally to us that it is difficult to empathise with pupils who don’t have the same mindset.

Yet. The yet is very important. Just as a learner has to believe that they can learn something before they can successfully learn it, so a teacher has to believe that everyone is teachable before they can successfully teach something. Will everyone get Computational Thinking? Let’s make sure that the mindset of teachers is not one of the barriers to achieving this goal!



  1. I’ve been teaching computing for about 6 years at primary and like every subject – some children will NOT get it (athough I’d say – a smaller number than maths or literacy) . Don’t try for 100% and fail – try to achieve your best and accept that for some – it will not compute. You may consider this negative thinking. I consider it realistic thinking

    • It’s both negative and realistic. But the question was not “will everyone get it?” the question was “can everyone get it?”

      There’s no need to be afraid of failure. I’ve been teaching programming to beginners at university for 5 years now and I’ve failed to a greater or lesser extent every year. But I always aim for 100% to get it despite knowing that it’s unlikely. If you’re aiming for less than 100% you’re falling victim to running to the line instead of running through it. (And that’s about the only thing I ever remembered from my P.E. teacher.)

      I don’t fear failing. And I try to focus my attention most on those who aren’t getting it, because they have the most to teach me. Even if I can’t help them, most likely I’ll learn something that will help the next student with the same blockage.

      “We’ll never survive!”
      “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

      ― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

  2. We’d have to agree on what the diff is between “can get it” and “will get it” then. Theoretically a fish “can” ride a bicycle but most people would say that it can’t actually do it 🙂 You are of course right to say that we should aim for 100% and not over-worry that some don’t get it. However we live in a world where anything less than the targeted attainment is considered unacceptable but that’s another discussion 🙂

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