Walking through a typical school building during the day is like walking through an art museum. One can look into each classroom and see a different masterpiece. Classrooms with colorful concoctions of decorations, students, teaching methods, and classroom materials. Amid this seeming swirl of activity within a classroom is the development of computational thinking skills that are vital to the success of our students. Computational thinking allows students to draw connections between what they’re learning and how to approach problems across all disciplines. By using computational thinking across the curriculum, you can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as what is happening in the classroom and life outside in the real world.
As defined by Jeannette Wing, computational thinking is “a way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on the concepts of computer science.” This first means understanding that teaching the “tools” should not be the focus; but emphasizing the computational thinking skills needed to utilize the tools for a greater purpose. Focusing on decomposition, algorithms, abstractions, and debugging helps students to look for multiple solutions to problems. Students, using computational thinking skills, actively engage in iterative problem-solving processes and are willing to take risks across all subject areas. Learning by this method flourishes with the appropriate classroom culture that encourages integrating computational thinking skills in the curriculum of all subject areas.
Curriculum integration is not a new idea. Many subjects have a natural overlap to start with and computational thinking helps teachers explore this concept further. Writing in a science lab, using a math journal, or measuring out the dimensions of pioneer log cabins are just a few examples of how different subject curriculums can be combined. Purposely pulling together the skills from different subject areas to develop a better understanding of key ideas is a better way of contextualizing and retaining them. With technology permeating our students’ world, multiple subjects can be intertwined in an even greater fashion, demonstrating why STEM has become a movement in the last few years.
The wonderful thing about curriculum is that even though it includes standards that teachers use each year, it can be updated and developed as our society’s needs change. Curriculum developers should be focused on higher-level computational thinking skills that are gained through creating materials that reach all students. How is this done through curriculum integrations? Educators tend to design integrated subjects by choosing a big concept or theme and working within it. This helps students see the inter-consecutiveness of the subjects, and even the world around them. Those authentic connections can help students make meaningful real-life applications and apply the skills they have learned to the benefit of the world around them.
Within the classroom setting, it is important for students that instruction be as learner-centered as possible. This means that the students are not just passive receivers of information, but actively exploring real world applications by applying computational thinking skills to challenges and projects. Challenges and projects should allow students to recognize real-world applications of the content and skills, which show them value and increases student motivation. These challenges do not have to be based only in the world of computer science, but can be centered around humanities, biology, physics or math. Teachers should incorporate different methods to help foster the skills and confidence students need to meet these creative challenges. By using a combination of direct instruction, facilitation, and coaching to engage in computational skills, educators can help students encompass a variety of skills and subject matter in an orderly fashion and build on previous knowledge and skills.
Researchers on integrating computational thinking skills across many subjects are recognizing that students exposed to computational thinking skills show more significant improvement in problem solving and critical thinking skills than their counterparts who have not. While embedding computational thinking in STEM subject areas or through standalone courses is an important effort, the trans-disciplinary nature of computational thinking competencies provides an opportunity to integrate computational thinking ideas into all K-12 subject areas. Research on embedding computational thinking in K-12 is also starting to emerge and has suggested that students exposed to computational thinking show significant improvement in their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. A 2015 study by Calao, et al. reported that integrating computational thinking in a sixth-grade mathematics class significantly improved students’ understanding of mathematics processes when compared to a control group that did not learn computational thinking in their math class.
Teaching computational thinking skills to students across the curriculum can empower educators and students to understand the world better. Schools can enrich their lessons and help students make connections beyond the computer science classroom. Students using computational skills can learn to use these skills, too.