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What is Computational Thinking?

The term Computational Thinking can be quite overwhelming when we first hear or see it in context with learning. I know it overwhelmed me and I spent many hours researching and observing, talking to colleagues and teachers, reading and building up tools and resources to help support my understanding of Computational Thinking. In this article, I’ll share some of my top findings around Computational Thinking, including what it is, why it’s important and how it might look in the teaching and learning environment.


Computational Thinking: What is it, and why is it important?

Computational Thinking is a process for solving complex problems through understanding what the problem is and breaking it down into smaller, manageable parts. These smaller problems are then easier to break down, often through pattern recognition and abstraction, or focussing on the relevant details and ignoring the irrelevant information. Once an overall solution has been discovered, a set of rules or instructions can then be created and  presented in a way a computer, a human, or both can understand.

Computational Thinking is suggested to:

  • Promote problem solving
  • Research based and tested
  • Develop innovators
  • Enhance creativity
  • Support understanding
  • Use collaboration and communication to progress learning 
  • Boost confidence
  • Appreciate diversity
  • Build resilience

One of the most important aspects of CT is that it enables students to make the leap from consumer to creator. Hence the connection to the new Digital Technologies Curriculum and Progress Outcomes.

“The digital curriculum is about teaching children how to design their own digital solutions and become creators of, not just users of, digital technologies, to prepare them for the modern workforce."
Chris Hipkins, 2018

Visual outlining the key concepts of computational thinking

The above diagram shows why CT is so important for students of today. A lot of the practises shown align with requirements for the employees of today. We are thus being very future focussed for our students by integrating the Computational Thinking process into our curriculum as well as specifically into the teaching and learning.

Four Foundations of Computational Thinking


01 Decomposition

Decomposition is the process of breaking a complex problem down into smaller parts to help find a solution. This can be especially useful for problems which can not be solved instantly as an overall solution requires several small answers combined together.

Example: Baking a Cake
Before we can go ahead and make a cake, we first need to know:

  • What the ingredients are
  • How much of each ingredient is needed
  • What order to put the ingredients together
  • How long the cake needs to bake for

This encourages: collaborative learning, easier more manageable parts, makes finding a solution less overwhelming for students, encourages reading and understanding the problem first… I’m sure you can see where this is happening in your classroom programme.


02 Pattern Recognition

Looking for and finding similarities and trends within a problem. How does it help us to be able to spot repetition? If we can identify similarities, we can then treat all instances in the same way, saving us time by being able to simply duplicate the same solving technique across all similarities. The more patterns you can find, the faster and easier the task will be.

Example: Decoding a Secret Message
When decoding a secret message, we may see repeated groups of symbols, numbers, etc. Once we have worked out the solution for a particular group of symbols, we know straight away that everytime we see that specific group of symbols, the solution will be the same. Being able to recognise patterns helps us become more efficient problem solvers.


03 Abstraction

Abstraction is the process of taking out all the details that don’t matter that much, allowing you to focus on just the details that do. Doing this will save time, make us more efficient and improve our problem solving abilities. Abstraction:

  • Allows us to create a general idea of what the problem is.​
  • Enables us to concentrate on the actual problem and not be distracted with the detail​
  • Enables us to form a "model"​

Example: Writing a Movie Synopsis
If you ask your students to write a blurb or synopsis of a movie, you would expect them to pick out key parts and not just transcribe everything that happened in the film. They would need to identify and focus on only what’s important. 


04 Algorithmic Design (Testing and Debugging)

Algorithmic Design is coming up with a set of step-by-step instructions or rules to follow in order to solve a problem. This is a plan that you put together after having gone through the other cornerstones or foundation process. Your plan must give a starting point, instructions, and a defined finishing point. The instructions to get from one point to the other must be:

  • Detailed
  • Specific and clear
  • Concise
  • Free of mistakes

Instructions help highlight the importance of providing an accurate sequence, or order of events, and quite often can be represented in flow diagram form. 

Example: Teaching a Robot to make Tea
Write a set of instructions for making a cup of tea. The catch: you will be giving these instructions to a robot. This is a fun activity to do and is more complex than you think. Once you have your instructions ready, get someone to test them and continue to tweak until all the bugs are fixed.

Student Benefits

If students are practised in this process and begin to use these skills, tools and strategies intuitively, it will:

  • Build resilience (it’s ok to get it wrong…)
  • Encourage collaboration (talking and discussing, asking questions, coming up with multiple solutions…)
  • Encourage them to build “models” and refine
  • Promote testing (finding any bugs and debugging)
  • Push creativity (anyone can come up with a solution as there may be multiple…)
  • Enhance communication (highlight the importance of specific and concise instructions that can only be interpreted one way)


For more information about the Digital technologies and the technology learning area, check out https://elearning.tki.org.nz

Keen to learn more about computational thinking and what it could look like in your teaching and learning programmers? Our team can help. 

Get in touch to chat with a TTS facilitator about what CT PLD might look like at your school.

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