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Creating a New Generation of Computational Thinkers


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Creating a New Generation of Computational Thinkers, illustrative photo

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Previous Communications viewpoints have discussed the crisis in school computing teaching.1,4,5 In many countries, school computing lessons have degenerated into the teaching of office skills, often by unqualified teachers. Students typically found this boring and uninspiring. There is a worldwide movement to tackle this problem, manifest in the U.K. by the Computing at Schools organization (CAS), the Royal Society report Shutdown or Restart?6 and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's McTaggart Lecture at the 2011 Edinburgh Television Festival.

It is important to create a community of toolmakers rather than just tool users. To achieve this we must teach schoolchildren to program, but this is not sufficient. Students also need to think computationally: to use abstraction, modularity, hierarchy, and so forth in understanding and solving problems. It is also necessary to employ a pedagogy that is informed by the latest research into the most effective ways to teach computing.

In Scotland, we have recently taken advantage of a unique opportunity to reform the teaching of computing. The new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has granted teachers significantly more autonomy in deciding what to teach and how to teach it. CS is now a core entitlement for all students during the first three years of secondary school, and an option in a new series of public qualifications during the senior years. CS teachers are eager to obtain teaching materials that address the CfE's aims and objectives.

Scotland starts from a stronger position than many other countries. While not immune to a decline in specialist CS teachers and student demand,3 this decline has been more gentle and from a higher starting point than in the rest of the U.K. Scottish teachers are all required to have a teaching qualification in their speciality and some public CS qualifications have included a significant and rising element of programming. Scotland also benefits from a unitary national curriculum and a unitary assessment authority for public examinations. Lastly, it is also small enough that one can get representatives from all the key stakeholders around a table, get buy-in from them all, and thereby be nimble in solving problems.

Scotland thus provided an ideal laboratory in which to develop a program for teaching computing: combining programming, computational thinking (CT), and evidence-based pedagogy, in order to address the computing teaching crisis. We encapsulated this program in teaching materials that we have made freely available and which have been enthusiastically adopted, not just in Scotland, but in many other countries. Some Scottish schools previously taught only information systems in the senior years, which does not include programming (beyond basic scripting), rather than computing, which does. Moreover, business education teachers sometimes teach computing in junior years. Therefore, it was necessary for our materials to be easily used by a non-specialist.

In our view, the success of our program shows that, with the aid of professionally curated materials and evidence-based pedagogy, schoolchildren can be taught to think computationally and to become toolmakers.

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The RSE/BCS Exemplification Project

In 2010, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and the BCS Academy of Computing joined forces in a project to support schoolteachers to develop materials to exemplify the CS CfE aims and objectives. A wide variety of bodies generously and enthusiastically provided funding: Scottish university CS departments, national and international industry and the government agency Education Scotland. One of the co-authors of this article, Jeremy Scott, was appointed: initially to a one-year, part-time post, but this was eventually extended to three years from 20112014, at a total cost of £90,000. The project was overseen by an advisory group that drew on all the stakeholders: RSE, BCS, universities, industry, CAS Scotland, CS teachers, and various other agencies. This multi-agency engagement helped get the project taken seriously by government, as did the presence of respected members of the advisory group.

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Pedagogy and Approach

In Phase I, we focused on the first three years of secondary school (ages 1114 in Scotland)the "Broad General Education" that seeks to give all of Scotland's students a solid grounding across the curriculumincluding the teaching of CS.

Context is also vital. Today's learners have a different experience of computing from previous generations: it is online, social, and increasingly mobile. Computing devices have become tactile and personal, the result of the convergence of numerous technologies from multitouch to motion sensing and GPS. We therefore had to connect to learners in a way that resonated with their own experiences of the digital world, eschewing the tedium of calculating payroll and other such mundane tasks.

New and rich programming environments allowed us to focus on problem solving without requiring students to learn a demanding syntaxsomething that often defeats learners before they get started. To that end, we selected Scratch and App Inventor, both maintained by MIT's Media Lab, as the environments for Phase 1. Their blocks-based approach to coding finesses problems of syntax, enabling students to concentrate on the logic of programming, while supporting the construction of rich multimedia applications (Scratch) and smartphone apps (App Inventor). Students learn all the usual programming concepts: sequential, conditional, and iterative connectives, but this happens implicitly. Both Scratch and App Inventor enabled the construction of quite sophisticated applications with short and easily developed programs, so learners were quickly rewarded for their efforts. Note that none of this would have been possible 510 years earlier.

In Phase 2, we built on Phase 1 by developing materials for the new Scottish qualifications of National 4 and 5 that follow the Broad General Education. This required progressing from the previous blocks-based languages to more conventional text-based ones. We chose LiveCode, a modern equivalent of Apple's HyperCard, which permits cross-platform development and deployment of rich apps to a variety of desktop and mobile platforms.

In addition to traditional programming, the new qualifications cover information systems design and development. While computational thinking certainly applies to information systems, there are further overarching ideas that together we referred to as "informational thinking." Informational thinking stresses the notion that information systems rely on abstracting knowledge into data structures. These structures are linked to develop user-centered systems for the storage, processing, and retrieval of information.

Our materials were designed to be used by even non-specialist teachers and to make available to them the latest, evidence-based pedagogical methodology, for example, "did you understand" questions. Each off-the-shelf pack included:

  • Screencasts: Videos illustrate key program construction operations step by step to the YouTube generation, which makes the materials easier for non-specialist teachers to use.
  • Buggy code: Students are lured into making errors and then challenged to debug their faulty code.
  • Did you understand?: Embedded questions reinforce and assess learning and encourage discussion and collaboration between students (which pedagogic research suggests is an important aid to deep understanding2). Some of the questions involve debugging code samples, while others address key CT themes, such as sequencing, scope and hierarchy (see the appendices to this Viewpoint).
  • Background: Opportunities are taken to deepen students' understanding of broader underlying principles, such as data representation, and place developments in computing in a historical and social context.
  • Design not imitation: The emphasis is on the student's design of the algorithm, not on imitation without understanding.
  • Excitement: The environments and applications are chosen to motivate the target age group, in contrast to some of the standard applications in the past, mentioned earlier.
  • Computational thinking: Underlying principles such as abstraction, modularity, and hierarchy, for example, are abstracted from the examples and highlighted via box-outs.

We believe this overall package, combining the elements listed here, allowed the project's materials to aid the learning of CT informed by evidence-based pedagogy.

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The Materials

All of the materials comprise student and teacher packs.a The latter are annotated with pedagogical suggestions and suggestions for further work, including interdisciplinary learninga cornerstone of Scotland's new curriculumwhile mapping to the aims and objectives of CfE. This enables non-specialist teachers to step out of their comfort zone and provide the kind of computing teaching our students require.


New and rich programming environments allowed us to focus on problem solving without requiring students to learn a demanding syntax.


The sequence of materials was envisaged to support CS from approximately 1115 years over, say, 15 hours per pack:

  • Starting from Scratch: An introduction to computing science using Scratch.
  • Itching for More: Intermediate material using BYOB (Build Your Own Blocks) Snap!, a modification of Scratch developed at UC Berkeley.
  • I My Smartphone: Consolidating previous work through the medium of mobile app development using App Inventor.
  • Information Everywhere: An introduction to web-based information systems.
  • Live to Code: A programming course for Scotland's new high school CS qualifications using the LiveCode app development language.

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Response

The materials were successfully trialled in a number of Scottish schools before general release, receiving widespread praise from both teachers and students. Since release we have had further positive feedback, not just from within Scotland but across the U.K. and internationally. A typical comment was: "The RSE materials set the pace on a global scalethey're comprehensive, accessible and were clearly written by someone with an understanding of how kids learn. They also employ a lot of research-based pedagogy, which is evident in both the teacher notes and student materials." [Cameron Fadjo, while Director of Software Engineering Education for the New York City Department of Education (now Project Lead in Computer Science Education at Google)]

INRIA has also translated Starting From Scratch into French for use in French schools.

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Lessons

The project's success exceeded our expectations. The materials have been widely and successfully adopted, not just in Scotland, but across the U.K. and elsewhere. We achieved a great deal at relatively low cost, as much of the project worked on good will: busy academics and industry figures self-lessly gave up their time, ably coordinated by expert help from the RSE. Jeremy Scott's school was also flexible in accommodating his secondment and speaking engagements.

But why else did the project succeed and what advice would we give to others trying to tackle the same issues?

  • A coordinated approach is key: universities, learned societies, and industry are taken seriously by governments and we successfully leveraged their support to get our voice heard.
  • We were also 'squeaky wheels', making noise with government and through the press. We seized upon the project's initial success to extend its original remit and raise broader issues facing the subject.
  • It also happened at a time when government wanted to be seen to be doing something about it. A launch event for the first phase of materials maintained the interest of politicians who were happy to be associated with it.
  • This allowed us to engage with our public education bodies in order to help shape the curriculum, rather than simply react to it.
  • Everyone is "Scratching," but there is a risk that teachers could just let students loose on a programming platform, such as Scratch, and tick the CS strand on their curriculum. For us, these wonderful tools are the medium but CT is the message. It is about laying firm foundations, which our materials provide.

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The Future

We are now at a critical point in Scottish CS school teaching. On the one hand we have our, and other (for example, CAS inspired), well-received materials; a band of able and energetic teachers; enthusiastic students; and buy-in from industry, government, universities, and learned societies. On the other hand, in some schools, we still have declining numbers taking CS qualifications and non-replacement of CS teachers. Some head teachers, career advisers, parents, and local education authorities are still unaware of the rewards of programming, the intellectual content of CT, and the exciting CS job opportunities.

It could go either way. It is a matter of urgency to get the message out to schools, parents, local education authorities and other stakeholders to reverse the current decline. In Scotland, we hope to play a significant role in spreading this message both within our country and worldwide. With the support of our government and the media, we have made a successful start.

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References

1. Bell, T. Establishing a nationwide CS curriculum in New Zealand high schools. Commun. ACM 57, 2 (Feb. 2014), 2830.

2. Chi, M.T.H. Active-constructive-interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009), 73105.

3. Computing Science Teachers in Scotland 2014. A report by Computing At School Scotland, December 2014.

4. Cooper, S., Grover, S. and Simon, B. Building a virtual community of practice for K12 CS teachers. Commun. ACM 57, 5 (May 2014), 3941.

5. Shein, E. Should everybody learn to code? Commun. ACM 57, 2 (Feb. 2014), 1618.

6. Shut Down or Restart? The Way Forward for Computing in UK Schools. The Royal Society, January 2012.

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Authors

Jeremy Scott (jts@george-heriots.com) is Principal Teacher of Computing Science at George Heriot's School, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Alan Bundy (A.Bundy@ed.ac.uk) is Professor of Automated Reasoning at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Footnotes

a. Computing Science. The materials discussed in this Viewpoint are available from the Royal Society of Edinburgh at http://bit.ly/1LaWlXr.

We wish to thank the numerous funders of our project, the project's advisory group, and the anonymous Communications referees, whose constructive comments helped shape our Viewpoint.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Did You Understand? question from Starting from Scratch.

UF2Figure. Did You Understand? question from I My Smartphone. In this example, a button can be clicked to increase the line width in a finger-painting application.

UF3Figure. Did You Understand? question from I My Smartphone. In this example, a bat from a classic "Pong"-style game is constantly moving, while its heading left and right can be changed by tilting the phone.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.


 

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