Computational thinking – the origins (part 1)

I’ve been researching the origins of the term “computational thinking” and looking at how it has been used historically. A helpful tool for this is Google Ngram Viewer which can plot instances of words or phrases in Google books and then cross-reference to the publications themselves.

The term computational thinking was first used as long ago as the late 19th century to describe the models of mathematical calculation as “intimately embedded in the study of the early processes of vision.” (Lockyer, 1869). It continued to be used in a mathematical sense in the mid 20th century in conjunction with quantitative analysis of economical situations. “In the realm  of social security; in fire, life, medical and automobile insurance; in annuities and other forms of providing for the future, our need for computational thinking has increased many fold.” (Prakken, 1942)

A slightly different definition was used by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (U.S) who used the term pre-computational thinking in mathematics teaching to emphasise the need to “circumspect the problem situation and then decide what is to be done” rather than choosing “one of the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division”. (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 1959). This interesting variation in meaning foreshadows the modern definition of computational thinking.

With the introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a semantic change took place. Seymour Papert was the first to describe computational thinking as a skill needed for working with computers, specifically in a LOGO environment, and he talked of a vision of “how to integrate computational thinking into everyday life”. (Papert, 1980). He didn’t expand on a definition of computational thinking nor why it would be useful in everyday life; at this stage he was predicting the learning of computing as a cultural and social phenomenon.

The entry below comes from a publication of essays about constructionism curated in 1991 by Harel and Papert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I find it particularly interesting that computational thinking could be seen as feminist, presumably because of the implication that it is concrete and personal.

comp thinking and feminism
Constructionism: research reports and essays, 1985 – 1990, page 10

Papert then mentions computational thinking in the context of a mathematical model of the best place to kick a rugby ball from to maximise the chances of a try conversion. He describes firstly how this problem can be solved using Euclidian geometry and then compares this with a solution programmed in a language called StarLogo. The StarLogo model found the correct answer but did not explain the mathematical concepts. Papert’s goal was to “use computational thinking to forge ideas that are at least as ‘explicative’ as the Euclid-like constructions … but more accessible and more powerful.” (Papert, 1996)

At this stage, the phrase computational thinking is still a technique for modelling, calculations and analysis, and is yet to become a set of skills as we think of it today.

References:

Harel, I & Papert, S (1991) Constructionism: research reports and essays, 1985 – 1990 Page 10

Lockyer, Sir N (1869) Nature Vol 323 Page 201

National Association of Elementary School Principals (U.S.) (1959) The National Elementary Principal Vol 39 Page 18

Papert, S (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas Page 182

Papert, S (1996) International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning, Vol 1 No 1 pp 95 – 123

Prakken, Lawrence W (1942) The Education Digest Vol 8 Page 49

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One comment

  1. […] I've been researching the origins of the term "computational thinking" and looking at how it has been used historically. A helpful tool for this is Google Ngram Viewer which can plot instances of words or phrases in Google books and then cross-reference to the publications themselves. The term computational thinking was first used as long ago as…  […]

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