Spring 2019

Computational Thinking and the Digital Literacy Movement

There is no sugar “coding” it, Canada needs to prepare the next generation to become globally aware, digitally literate citizens. But what do the terms Computational Thinking and Digital Literacy entail? Kim Taylor, Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science, delve into a number of resources from around the world including curriculum documents, academic literature, resources for educators, and websites to develop a comprehensive Computational Thinking framework.

An Introduction to Computational Thinking

Virtually every sphere of our work and life has become dominated by digital technology. The majority of Canadian youth have grown up never knowing a world without computers and smart phones, and even though many are avid consumers of technology, there is a growing concern that they are not being prepared to become producers of technology.

Kafai & Margolis (Washington Post online, 2014) described it this way:

“Being a digital native today isn’t just about browsing the web, using technology to communicate, or participating in gaming networks. It really involves knowing how things are made, breaking down and solving problems, designing systems, contributing through making, and understanding social and ethical ramifications. We see how computers in any form and place have become an inextricable part of our social lives—not just how we interact but also how we contribute.”

As technology advances, it will become important that Canadian youth are prepared to contribute to their digital world. This includes being prepared to interact in a meaningful way with others, taking part in a workforce in which computers play an ever-increasing role, making decisions about how technology shapes their world, and finding solutions to problems that face us all.

Educators will need support to develop an understanding of what is important for our youth to learn so that they may play an active role in their ever-changing digital world. Let’s Talk Science would argue that in the 21st century and beyond, students will need to learn to think computationally, that is, to develop the skills, knowledge and habits of mind of Computational Thinking.

The term “Computational Thinking” appears in education systems around the world, including the Canadian Kindergarten to Grade 12 system. Computational Thinking will be new for many educators and it will be important for them to understand what Computational Thinking encompasses so that they will be prepared to effectively support student learning.

Where Does Computational Thinking Fit?

In most respects, Computational Thinking falls within the realm of Digital Literacy. According to the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), Digital Literacy is “the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and create information using digital technology for a knowledge-based society” (2012, p. 4). The Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship defines Digital Literacy as the “ability to use technological tools to solve problems, underpinned by the ability to critically understand digital content and tools. This can include the more advanced ability to create new technological tools, products and services” (2017, p. 11).

It is important to note that some aspects of Computational Thinking can be developed without digital technology, which is why the Digital Literacy and Computational Thinking squares in Figure 1 do not overlap completely.

Computer Studies is “less about learning how to use a computer and much more than computer programming” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2008, p.3). Computer Studies, which the Ontario Ministry of Education considers to be “about how computers compute,” occurs where Digital Literacy and Computational Thinking overlap, as depicted in Figure 1.

Computer programming, known more commonly by its more user-friendly term “coding,” falls squarely within Digital Literacy, Computer Studies and Computational Thinking. Coding is about telling computers what to do. In most cases, people use a specific programming (or coding) language which defines how the code should be written so that the computer can understand it. Coding can help students develop many aspects of Computational Thinking.

What is Computational Thinking?

There is currently no universally accepted definition of Computational Thinking. There are many similar yet different definitions and explanations of Computational Thinking which reflect the interests and opinions of researchers, educators and organizations (computer science, science, mathematics, etc.).

In many cases, instead of defining Computational Thinking outright, sources explain it in terms of what students must know and do to develop Computational Thinking skills. Sometimes the learning outcomes are conceptual (e.g., concept of algorithms) and sometimes the learning outcomes are skills-based (e.g., algorithmic thinking). Sources also describe Computational Thinking-based learning activities which they label strategies, methods, approaches, processes, and practices.

Although there seems to be little consensus on terminology, there are some recurring ideas in the research.

Let’s Talk Science Computational Thinking Framework

The Let’s Talk Science Computational Thinking Framework is a synthesis of the many definitions and explanations that have been proposed to date. It is influenced by work done by the Computer Science Teachers Association (USA), the International Society for Technology in Education, Computing at School (UK), the Brookfield Institute (Canada), Karen Brennan and Mitchell Resnick (MIT media lab), and Peter J. Denning. It is designed to illustrate how the various facets of Computational Thinking enable students to develop the skills, understandings and habits of mind they need to solve problems and meet needs in the digital world.

To read the full copy to the Let’s Talk Science Computational Thinking framework please visit  letstalkscience.ca/professionallearning

How is Let’s Talk Science supporting Computational Thinking in the Canadian Classroom?

Let’s Talk Science is offering a new Digital Literacy series of professional learning workshops for Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators. The series was developed in partnership with Fair Chance Learning with valuable input from educators and approved by field experts as a complement and enhancement to existing curriculum. The program emphasizes on improving digital skills through problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. Educators are encouraged to select and remix content into their lesson plans to create the most relevant and useful material for their students. By participating in these workshops’ educators will feel confident that they have a clearer understanding of this rapidly changing subject and that they are preparing students with the digital skills to thrive in a globally-connected and technology-rich world.

To support teachers in their ability to teach coding and computational thinking through cross-curricular projects, the Digital Literacy series of workshops introduces teachers to the United Nation’s Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs). These goals are used to help foster empathy in students and challenge them to come up with solutions to real-world problems using the design thinking model. This approach helps teachers feel more comfortable in introducing Digital Literacy and Computational Thinking into their lessons as they can rely on their existing expertise as a subject matter expert, but can become co-learners with their students as they come up with technology-driven solutions to their problems.

This approach has been well received by teachers and administers to date who have attended this series of workshops as they feel students end up coding with a purpose in mind and get to practice important skills such as communication and collaboration. For more information on upcoming training sessions or to speak with a Let’s Talk Science professional learning specialist about a private session for your school visit letstalkscience.ca/professionallearning

Courtesy of Let’s Talk Science

Brennan, K., & Resnick, M. (2012). Using artifact-based interviews to study the development of computational thinking in interactive media design. Paper presented at annual American Educational Research Association meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Brookfield Institute. (2017). Digital Learning in a Digital Age: A Discussion Paper. Retrieved from http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/BrookfieldInstitute_DigitalLiteracy_DigitalAge.pdf
Computing at School (CAS) Barefoot. (2014). Computational Thinking. Retrieved from: https://barefootcas.org.uk/barefoot-primary-computing-resources/concepts/computational-thinking/
Computing at School (CAS). (2014). Computing in the National Curriculum. A guide for secondary teachers. Retrieved from http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/cas_secondary.pdf
Computing at School (CAS). (2015a). Computational Thinking – A Guide for Teachers. Retrieved from http://community.computingatschool.org.uk/files/8550/original.pdf
Computing at School (CAS). (2015b). QuickStart Computing – A CPD toolkit for primary teachers. Retrieved from http://community.computingatschool.org.uk/files/4868/original.pdf
Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) & Microsoft. (2009). Computational Thinking: A Problem-Solving Tool for Every Classroom. Retrieved from http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.csteachers.org/resource/resmgr/CompThinking.pdf?hhSearchTerms=%22computational+and+thinking%22
Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). (2016). K-12 Computer Science Framework. Retrieved from http://www.k12cs.org.
Denning, P. J. (2017a). Computational Thinking in Science. American Scientist; Research Triangle Park. 105(1), 13-17. Retrieved from https://www.americanscientist.org/article/computational-thinking-in-science
Denning, P.J. (2017b). Remaining Trouble Spots with Computational Thinking. Communications of the ACM, 60(6), 33-39. https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2017/6/217742-remaining-trouble-spots-with-computational-thinking/fulltext
Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). (2012). Digital Literacy: Canada’s Productivity Opportunity. A white paper from the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Retrieved from https://www.ictc-ctic.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ICTC_DigitalLitWP_EN_09-10.pdf
International Technology in Education (ISTE). (2016). ISTE Standards for Students. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/for-students
International Technology in Education (ISTE) & Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) (2011). Computational Thinking Teacher Resources. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/docs/ct-documents/ct-teacher-resources_2ed-pdf.pdf?sfvrsn=2
Kafai, Y. & Margolis, J. (2014, October 7). Why the ‘coding for all’ movement is more than a boutique reform. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/10/17/why-the-coding-for-all-movement-is-more-than-a-boutique-reform/?utm_term=.d11ca0528eec
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2008). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 10 to 12: Computer Studies. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/computer10to12_2008.pdf

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