Computational thinking – the debate to define (part 2)

About a decade ago, a semantic shift in the use of the term computational thinking began with a call to arms from Wing, who wrote an article encouraging computing professionals and educators to recognise computational thinking as an essential skill for everyone (Wing, 2006, p 33). At this stage, Wing suggested computational thinking was a single skill and then attempted to conceptualise it through a series of examples such as problem solving, writing efficient code, working with systems, disaster recovery and purposeful use of data (pp 33 – 34). Yet the article did not contain a definition of this skill, nor compare and contrast it with other skills such as critical thinking or drawing conclusions from data. Furthermore, Wing’s assertion that this was a universally applicable skill (p 33) is brought into doubt by the fact that some problems, such as those requiring moral or ethical judgments, cannot be understood by a computer or solved by computational thinking.

A similar evangelistic viewpoint was shown by Bundy who declared that an intellectual revolution was taking place (Bundy, 2007, p 1). His context for this statement was a set of multi-disciplinary seminars examining the influence of computational thinking on scientific fields.  Therefore his discoveries were to a certain extent biased towards proving these links. Moreover he conceded that some of the effects of computational thinking on other academic areas such as biology, geology and law (pp 1 – 2) were quite subtle. Therefore his conclusion that “if you want to understand the 21st Century then you must first understand computation” (p 1) lacked robust evidence to prove this.

Because computational thinking is used across many scientific fields, it is arguable whether it can be seen as unique to computer science (Denning 2009) at all. Denning, too, had difficulty in defining computational thinking, although he was quite clear it was not a skill. Rather he called it a “computational doing” technique to apply in various types of research. Denning discussed the need for a range of computing skills, including computation, in contrast with Wing, who proposed computational thinking as the principal skill.

Like Wing, Bundy also saw computational thinking as a pervasive theory which could impact “every kind of thought” (p 3). I agree that computational thinking is a mindset everyone should learn. However, as much as I value the benefits of computational thinking as evidenced by the impact it has had on teaching and learning in my classroom, I would not call upon it to solve a problem such as whether it was right for a child to punch another child to stop them bullying a younger child. Therefore I disagree with the idea that computational thinking can be used in every situation.

Computational thinking is not the same skill set as those used in problem-solving or critical thinking in the primary curriculum. Problem-solving specifically asks children to use mathematical skills to solve a routine or non-routine problem, although, like computational thinking, it does include breaking down a sophisticated problem into smaller steps. Critical thinking is about arriving at rational conclusions which can be substantiated with real information whereas computational thinking offers pragmatic solutions to complex real-world problems. (Voskoglou and Buckley, p 31)

Educational research was now facing the challenge to define the skillset required in computational thinking to prove its necessity in the curriculum.

References:

Bundy, A. (2007) Computational Thinking is Pervasive, Journal of Scientific and Practical Computing, Vol 1, No 2

Denning, Peter J. (2009) Beyond Computational Thinking, Communications of the ACM Vol 52, Issue 6, pp 28 – 30

Voskoglou, M. and S. Buckley (2012) Problem Solving and Computers in a Learning Environment Egyptian Computer Science Journal, Vol 36, No 4, pp 28 – 46

Wing, J. (2006) Computational Thinking Communications of the ACM Vol 49 pp 33 – 35

 

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