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"It goes against the grain of modern education to teach children to
program. What fun is there in making plans, acquiring discipline in
organizing thoughts, devoting attention to detail, and learning to be
(Alan Perlis; American computer scientist known for his
pioneering work in programming languages and the first recipient of the
Turing Award; 1922–1990.)
Many of you learned about “Joe the Plumber” during the most recent
presidential elections in the United States. His name came to symbolize
the “common man” in discussions about what the presidential candidates
would do for middle class Americans.
Recently I participated
in a Computational Thinking workshop organized by the United States
National Academies and funded by the National Science Foundation. Two
days were spent exploring the general idea of “Computational Thinking
for All” as a possible new movement in our country’s educational
system. A number of times during the discussions, the “trash collector”
was used as a metaphor for an ordinary person as we struggled with the
idea of what an average citizen could or should be learning about
Computational Thinking. This repeated reference to possible needs and
wants of an ordinary person kept reminding me to the politics of Joe
As noted in previous IAE Newsletters, Computational Thinking is
emerging as a replacement for or extension of the idea of computer
literacy. In the computer literacy movement starting over 35 years ago,
there was eventually considerable disagreement about whether students
needed to learn to program a computer or whether computer literacy
could be achieved through other approaches.
To a very large
extent, the “other approaches” have won out. In spite of the leadership
of people like Alan Perlis (quoted at the beginning of this
newsletter), instruction in computer science and computer programming
is a very modest component of precollege education in the United
Efforts to counter this trend have included the
development of some really neat and high quality educational computer
programming languages/environments such as Alice, Boxer, Scratch,
Squeak, Boxer, and ToonTalk, along with updates of the old standbys
BASIC and Logo.
Looking at More Current
Reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) are well established as
basic literacies needed by all students. There are other possible
literacies that could be built into our formal education system. A
number of people support art, dance, and music as desirable candidates.
One of the issues I raised at the Computational Thinking
Workshop was whether a number of the goals for universal Computational
Thinking literacy are being met through informal education (mainly
occurring outside of school). Here is a list I have prepared to support
this assertion. A great many people have developed personally
satisfying levels of expertise in a number of the following areas
mainly through informal education.
- Taking, editing, storing, and sharing digital still and motion pictures.
- Social networking, chat groups, and other forms of creating or adding to Web sites.
- Creating, maintaining, and using an electronic address book to support one’s personal communication needs.
- Email, cell phone, text messaging, and conference phone calling.
- Word processing and desktop publishing, with printing and electronic submission of documents.
- Web searching; use of online media to help solve problems.
- Storage and retrieval of music and video.
- Computer gaming and computerized toys.
- Use of ATM machines, credit and debit cards, and online purchasing.
- Computer graphics.
- Computer-assisted learning.
- Computer-assisted musical composition and performance.
Looking into the
The previous section is suggestive of the idea that young people gain
quite a bit of Computational Thinking literacy by merely growing up in
our high tech environment.
What is at issue, then, is whether
a deeper, more academic type of Computational Thinking literacy should
be integrated into the curriculum content, instructional processes, and
assessment of our formal educational system. Here are two possible
- Making use of the modern and other still to be
developed programming languages and environments, push a computer
science and computer programming strand into the general required
curriculum. This is somewhat like what we have done in math education.
- Analyze each of the school-based academic disciplines from the point
of view of routine use of powerful computer tools as an aid to helping
to represent and solve the types of problems that are inherent to the
disciplines. Integrate Computational Thinking and routine use of
powerful computer technology into each academic curriculum area that
schools deem appropriate to require of, or make available to, students.
The first approach can meet the needs of some students.
Students vary considerably in the extent to which the “take to”
computer programming, developing both interest and understanding. My
personal feeling is that this approach will be successful with only a
small percentage of students. That doesn’t mean we should not make such
programming-oriented opportunities available to students. Indeed, I
feel that it is very important that we do so. Successes in this area
will contribute substantially to advancing progress in science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as many other
My current thoughts are that the second
approach is the right way to go in our attempts to reach all students.
However, I find it mind boggling to consider the ongoing challenge of
staff development. We need a process of continual revision of
curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment in all
discipline areas and at all grade levels as computer science and
computer technology continue to make rapid progress on a year by year
About Information Age
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