Computational thinking

Miles Berry, author of Switched on Computing from Rising Stars, shares some top tips on how to take on the new computing curriculum

The first sentence of the new computing programme of study sets out our ambition: ‘A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world’. It’s worth noting that we’re framing this in terms of a liberal education, rather than vocational training: yes, many pupils may well go on to jobs as programmers, software engineers and computer scientists, but computing, like physics, music and poetry, deserves its place on the curriculum because it provides both a unique lens through which to understand the world and a rich creative medium through which pupils can change it. 

‘Computational thinking’ is the golden thread running throughout the programme of study, and might be an unfamiliar phrase to many teachers. Computational thinking is about looking at problems and systems in such a way that we can make good use of computer systems to help us solve or understand them. The higher order thinking skills such as; logical reasoning, decomposition, abstraction, generalisation and algorithms, and practical approaches such as; tinkering, making, fixing, persevering and collaborating on which it draws have wide applications beyond computing itself. Whilst much of computational thinking can be developed away from the computer, I’ve no doubt that the practical experience of writing useful, interesting programs is the best way to understanding and developing these skills.

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Creativity on the other hand, has characterised the best ICT lessons for many years now and it would be wrong to lose sight of this crucial element of computing education with the new focus on coding and other aspects of computer science. Creating original digital artefacts that are valued by others is certainly motivating, but I think, as did Seymour Papert, that it’s also an effective way of coming to understand the ideas that lie at the heart of computing as a discipline. Writing computer code is, itself, a creative process, but so are creating animations, making videos, developing a website and even producing a well-designed set of presentation slides. All of these have their place in a broad and balanced computing curriculum.

Just as pupils learn well in computing through making things, the same applies to their teachers. One of the best ways to get to grips with the new programme of study is to spend time exploring some of the great tools available for teaching computing. For example, MIT’s Scratch is a great toolkit for pupils to learn to code, but it’s also a platform in which teachers can develop simple (or even quite complex) educational games and simulations to use with their pupils. In Switched on Computing, I’ve put together a scheme of work that teachers can adapt to fit with their own cross-curricular project work, whilst ensuring breadth and balance, as well as plenty of challenge in teaching computing. The carefully planned step-by-step approach, and some great professional development resources, should provide the support many teachers are looking for in making the exciting transition from ICT to computing with their pupils.

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