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Computational Thinking Is Not Necessarily Computational

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I applaud Peter J. Denning's Viewpoint "Remaining Trouble Spots with Computational Thinking" (June 2017), especially for pointing out the subject itself is often characterized by "vague definitions and unsubstantiated claims"; "computational thinking primarily benefits people who design computations and . . . claims of benefit to nondesigners are not substantiated"; and "I am now wary of believing that what looks good to me as a computer scientist is good for everyone." Moreover, the accompanying table outlined various historic definitions of "computational thinking," including a comparison of what Denning called the "new" and the "traditional" view of the subject. However, my own interest in computational thinking differs somewhat from Denning's. First, I question the legitimacy of the term "computational" itself. Why say it, when the very subject is "computers" and the chief academic approach to their study is "computer science"? If one looks at how computers are actually used, it may come as a surprise to learn that few such uses actually involve computing. For example, applications that deal with scientific and engineering problems are of course heavily computing-focused, but, last I heard, they constitute only approximately 20% of all applications being developed worldwide. The most predominant applications—those for business—involve little computation beyond arithmetic. And systems programs like operating systems and compilers, the focus of much computer science study, historically at least, involve little or no computation and primarily concern manipulating information rather than numbers.

The problem is that computational-thinking enthusiasts, as Denning wrote, are driven to spread the subject across all academic majors. I certainly believe in the importance of programming and using computers for the variety of applications for which they provide benefit and that educational systems worldwide should provide the knowledge and skills that would help students move into the field, should that be their preference. But should computational thinking also be taught to artists, writers, poets, physicians, and lawyers? Not as I see it . . .


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