Learning the computational mindset – education researchers give perspective

The authors argue that modern children already think with computation after being shaped by the prolific digital tools that fill their lives

Image Enlarge

Two computer science faculty at the University of Michigan, Prof. Mark Guzdial and Thurnau Prof. Elliot Soloway, have collaborated with Turing Award winner Alan Kay and Regents Professor Cathie Norris of University of North Texas to publish an article in Communications of the ACM (CACM) challenging conventional wisdom about how (or whether) educators should be changing their students into “computational thinkers.” The researchers, working against an operating mode that has been prevalent since 2006, argue that the onus should be on computer scientists to provide benefits from the use of technology in education rather than on students and educators.

Read the text-only article here.

Guzdial edits the Education column in the CACM, which Soloway initiated nearly 30 years earlier. He pulled together the authors for this article to offer a critical perspective on a subject that has been widely discussed since it was first raised in a 2006 CACM issue.

“This is a real statement about where the focus should be — on teaching computational thinking, or on making computing better,” Guzdial says. “We’re arguing that it’s the latter.”

The computational thinking movement, write the authors, argues that humans need to change the way they think to be more informed by how they work with computers. In short, it was the job of educators and students to adapt to the new computational reality. It’s understood that this new way of thinking will have problem-solving advantages for the humans.

Instead, the authors counter that modern children already think with computation after being shaped by the prolific digital tools that fill their lives. Therefore, better thinking and problem solving should come from improved computing that in turn changes our teaching. In their view, it’s the job of computer scientists to design better tools.

“What the paper says is NOT the accepted doctrine,” Soloway says. The authors use the analogy of a city that doesn’t work for its residents — the options are to change the city or change the citizens. But the best redesign will come from a process involving the citizens and giving them an understanding of how changes can meet their needs, developing both in parallel.

The four authors are powerhouses in the field of computing education, and Kay and Soloway in particular are well known for their contributions to the early development of the field. Kay, famous for his time on the Xerox PARC research staff that pioneered key personal computer technologies, is one of the fathers of the idea of object-oriented programming, which he named. He went on to architect the modern overlapping window user interface that’s dominated computer use since they were first commercialized, and designed early concepts for laptops and tablets. He’s carried these early experiences forward in his work with computing education, becoming a strong proponent of the One Laptop Per Child educational platform and a prominent co-developer of affordable educational laptops with MIT research laboratories in 2005.

Soloway and Norris are longtime collaborators and advocates for greater use of technology in education, and founders of many initiatives that seek to make its adoption simpler for educators. They are co-directors of the Center for Digital Curricula, which works to encourage the development and adoption of standards for an aligned, vetted, and deeply-digital curricula. They’ve made significant contributions to incorporating mobile technology into education, and run the Reinventing Curriculum blog on THE Journal, a publication focused on the technological transformation of K-12 education.

Guzdial is a leading expert in the field of computing education, and was one of its earliest researchers. His efforts in computing education research span the challenges facing the young field. In his previous position as a professor at Georgia Tech, he developed innovative solutions to problems of computing education for non-majors that have since been implemented around the world. Most prominent of these is his framework called media computation, which replaces standard programming challenges with manipulation of sound and images. In 2019 he was recognized this year with the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education.