In an era where technology is continuously evolving, and where solving everyday problems increasingly require troubleshooting and creative reconfiguration, it is crucial to equip the youth with relevant skills such as computational thinking (CT). If one has never come across activities that involve computation, the concept of computational thinking may feel foreign. However, having such skills opens up significant opportunities in a rapidly changing high-tech climate.
As long ago as the early 1960s, scientists such as Alan Perlis wrote extensively about computational thinking and in the 1980s, researchers recognised the importance of teaching computational thinking skills to children. Jeanette Wing, in her 2006 essay, describes computational thinking as “taking approaches to solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behaviour that draws on the concepts fundamental to computer science.” In simpler terms CT involves (but is not limited to) the following aspects:
• Logical Thinking
• Pattern Recognition
• Algorithmic Design
• Conditional Reasoning
Computation thinking skills not only apply in computer science but across many disciplines. In the context of education, teaching computational skills allows educators to explore new ways of teaching such as Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), unplugged activities that do not require computer devices, and gamification. “Scientific inquiry may lead to the development of higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, critical thinking and evaluation” (Conklin, 2012). A recent study involving a group of South African Physical Science teachers found teachers were not dismissive of IBL, but instead consider inquiry-based approaches that are workable for their teaching contexts. Researchers have long maintained that to integrate computational thinking into the education system successfully prepares future teachers to teach it. Ramnarian and Hlatswayo advocates for these new teaching techniques to be adopted in schools - “In the knowledge-based economy, “learning-by-doing” is paramount, and inquiry-based learning activities could encapsulate experiences that develop thinking skills demanded by the workplace in this economy”. Research is providing evidence that teaching computational thinking at school level has the potential of transforming the learning culture and creatively influence the learner perceptions towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) driven careers.
“To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability” – Wing, 2006.
In the past decade, there have been great global efforts and paradigm shifts in the landscape of education - reformations and additions to the K-12 curriculum to include computational thinking modules such as coding or programming. The South African education system is currently piloting coding or programming, with studies conducted in some schools indicating that programming helps learners improve logic and problem solving, which are fundamental aspects of CT. Other aspects of CT, such as pattern recognition and algorithmic design, focus on developing learners’ abilities to identify, define, and create patterns, as well as develop an understanding of how to use algebraic proofs that are essential in problem-solving. Learners also develop a sense of ‘heuristic reasoning’ (a technique of finding solutions quicker without using long methods) when engaging in computational thinking activities. CT encompasses many valuable skills, which are multi-disciplinary and constructivist in nature.
In his “Plea for Modesty”, David Hemmendinger cited by Yadav at el. outlines the purpose of having a computational minded education system - It “is to teach them how to think like an economist, a physicist, an artist, and to understand how to use computation to solve their problems, to create, and to discover new questions that can fruitfully be explored”.