Information Age Education
   Issue Number 13
March, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

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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 self-critical?”

(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 the plumber.

Looking Back

HistoryAs 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 States.

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 Times

CurrentReading, 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.
  • GPS.
  • Computer-assisted learning.
  • Computer-assisted musical composition and performance.

 Looking into the Future

The FutureThe 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 approaches.

  1. 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.
  2.  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 academic disciplines.

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 basis.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at,  and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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