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Computational thinking: Extend problem-solving beyond computer science

By Alyssa Vitale and Carolyn Sykora
September 3, 2020
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Computational thinking (CT) has been elevated as a critical new literacy thanks to its ties to computer science. Through the CT process, we can create algorithms that harness the power of computing to scale solutions. With many states adopting new K-12 CS frameworks, CT integration in early grades prepares students for future coursework and the workforce.

But the merits of this powerful problem-solving process extend beyond computer science. When educators infuse CT into lessons, students develop strong analytical skills and can deepen their knowledge and inquiry of content through authentic learning activities.

CT is a thinking process that provides a method for students to define and explore open-ended problems and find solutions. While CT doesn’t require a computer, the thinking process ultimately builds foundational skills for using computing as a tool to assist with problem solving.

For example, suppose a middle school art student wants to answer this open-ended question: How can I create new paintings in the style of Picasso? To do this successfully, the student must be able to break down the different artistic elements that can make a painter’s style unique, identify patterns in Picasso’s work, abstract critical details of his style from non-critical ones, and outline a process to include those recurring stylistic elements in a new painting.

Engaging preservice teachers with CT

In collaboration with the City University of New York (CUNY) with funding from the Robin Hood Foundation, ISTE is coaching faculty to infuse CT into preservice methods courses and student teaching in the Queens College childhood education program. Our aim is to equip new teachers with the skills they need to authentically apply CT to content area lessons, and in turn support students in mastering content-specific concepts.

Last year, preservice teachers were introduced to CT via a math methods course. When Jessica Alejandro started student teaching in math, she found that CT was a useful supplement to a more standard approach. “I would try to use CT to help [students] better understand the underlying concepts. When math was taught by the book, CT provided an alternative way to try teaching students in a way that could help struggling students.”

Jessica’s classmate Lilian Bayron found ways to apply CT beyond math. “I would use [CT] in other subject areas like vocabulary, especially with students that were ELL,” she said. “They would have trouble with new vocabulary and I would use CT to help them break down words and look for patterns.” 

Our work with CUNY shows that preservice teachers are willing to adopt and test CT infusion in the classroom. By infusing CT into preservice curricula, we lay the foundation for a new generation of teachers who can prepare students to succeed with content-area learning and support the realization of state-adopted CS frameworks. 

ISTE Computational Thinking Microcredentials

To help new and veteran teachers demonstrate their competency with CT, ISTE and CUNY are beta-testing and piloting three microcredentials focused on computational thinking. ISTE will conduct the microcredential assessments, but teachers can follow any learning pathway to get to the assessment. Possible pathways include ISTE’s Introduction to Computational Thinking for Every Educator course, school-based professional development workshops, CT-infused preservice curricula or self-directed learning.

Next year, we plan to expand this work with a pilot of ISTE’s CT Microcredentials for ISTE preservice and in-service educators from Georgia State University (GSU) and the state of Georgia.

The CT Microcredentials are currently only available to our partners at CUNY, GSU and the Georgia Department of Education. We plan to expand access to these to the public after we test and refine the microcredentials with our pilot groups. We look forward to bringing the microcredentials to teachers everywhere soon!

There are many exciting ways to teach computational thinking. Click the box below to learn more about the ISTE course, Introducation to Computational Thinking for Every Educator.

ISTE U - Computational Thinking edtech PD

Alyssa Vitale is a project manager of higher education projects at ISTE. As a first-generation college student, Alyssa is particularly interested in the intersection of educational access and justice for all.

Carolyn Sykora, senior director of ISTE Standards programs, has more than 20 years of experience in education leadership and program management for nonprofits. She assists efforts to promote the adoption the ISTE Standards and directs implementation of the ISTE Standards in K-12 and in teacher preparation programs. Carolyn specializes in project and program leadership for resources, products and services that serve school and district leaders, technology coaches, classroom teachers and higher education faculty.