Building Essential Skills Through Computational Thinking


As a Spanish teacher, there are many topics and trends in education that for a long time I believed did not have any applicability in my classroom. For example, during the past five years, I have taught an 8th grade STEAM course about emerging technology and covered topics such as artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and coding, to name a few. Students in my Spanish classes would often ask about why they couldn’t do some of those same activities especially when it came to AR/VR. I never had a good answer. It honestly never occurred to me to bring those same experiences into my language classes, until two years ago when I started participating in the Hour of Code.

For that one day, I set a goal for all of my classes to participate and that was the first step taken to do more than just teaching the content. Since that time, the students in my Spanish classes have had an opportunity to learn about some of the same topics as my STEAM course. It presented students with a new way to engage with the content and helped me to become more comfortable bringing in new ideas and emerging trends to my classes so that students could further develop essential future ready skills. I wanted to learn more and last fall, I decided to take on a new challenge: computational thinking.

In helping students to build essential skills for the future, the World Economic Forum shows that some of the growing skills for 2022 are analytical thinking, critical thinking and analysis, complex problem solving, reasoning problem solving and ideation. These areas out of the top 10 growing skills can be developed by providing computational thinking learning experiences for our students.

Last fall, I enrolled in the ISTE U Course on computational thinking and experienced some challenges through some of it, especially during my final project.  I had to create a lesson plan to teach about CT in my Spanish courses. I struggled to wrap my head around what CT was and how I could apply it in my lessons.  So I researched more and tried to really understand exactly what CT was and how to bring it into the classroom.

What is Computational Thinking?

Contrary to what I initially thought, computational thinking is more than just computer science. It focuses on problem solving, and has four pillars: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms. Here are the definitions that I learned through the course.

Decomposition: Breaking down larger problems, processes or data and complexities into smaller more manageable parts.

Pattern recognition:  Looking for and identifying patterns or trends to help understand, make a connection, or to distinguish differences, as a way to negotiate understanding.

Abstraction:  The process of ignoring or removing the less important details to better understand a problem or find a solution/negotiate meaning.

Algorithm Design: Developing a process for problem solving that include step by step instructions and for working through a problem or completing a task/challenge.

How to apply in the classroom

There are some quick ways to get students started thinking about CT in the classroom. At different levels we can use computational thinking skills to help students who are learning to read, understand the structure of the language, look for patterns and to build their own knowledge to better understand the content. Some simple ideas include having students break a task down into smaller steps (decomposition). Have students look for commonalities or differences between objects or topics and divide them into groups (pattern recognition). Students can use patterns to then later solve problems. By having students read, find the main idea or in my experience, asking students to focus on the key vocabulary in Spanish that is conveying the actual message, these would be examples of abstraction. An example of an algorithm would be the steps involved or the sequence of a task. Algorithms gave me some trouble at first but an algorithm is simply creating a solution to a type of problem or developing rules to help you solve a problem. When  creating my lesson plan for the course, it took some time for me to wrap my head around what this might look like in a language classroom.

There are many digital resources available for educators looking to bring computational thinking experiences into their classrooms. Beyond the technology piece, it is a way to help students to build their problem-solving skills, develop logic, to brainstorm solutions and be able to make connections to content in a more authentic and meaningful way. It also promotes the development of critical thinking skills which is an essential skill for now and the future.

While we are experiencing school closures and seeking more innovative or meaningful opportunities for students to engage in virtual learning, here are six resources for students and educators to explore CT and build their skills. Provides a basic lesson for students to learn about CT and explore the four components of decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and algorithms. It includes teacher lesson plans that come with questions, additional resources and relevant standards addressed. A computational thinking resource kit is also provided which makes it easier to get started with CT activities in the classroom.

Digital Promise. Through Digital Promise, educators can learn about the differences between computer science and computational thinking and access resources that can be added to any curriculum. Digital Promise also offers micro credentialing for CT as one of its “stacks” to encourage teachers to get started with CT through their pedagogies and practices courses. Teachers work through activities, explore research and resources, and plan lessons. Upon completion, teachers submit evidence of student work where computational thinking has been applied to receive their micro-credentials.

Google Exploring Computational Thinking. Offers access to resources from ISTE and other providers of CT courses and related content. Included are resources from ISTE which has a repository of lessons and materials about CT for different grade levels and content areas.  Through the support of Google, ISTE U offers the course “Introduction to Computational Thinking for Every Educator” which is a 15 hour self-paced course that is applicable for any educator, regardless of role or grade level. The course is designed to help educators learn about CT by working through learning activities and then writing a lesson for incorporating CT into the classroom.

Plethora. A platform that offers students and teachers the opportunity to learn about computational thinking by engaging in activities and games to build skills in CT. The platform promotes the development of problem solving and critical thinking.  Teachers have access to lesson plans which come with 10-20 game levels for each and can monitor student progress in the teacher dashboard. There are four components to the Plethora platform: Develop, Play, Share and Invent. Students explore as they build skills and even create their own game levels while practicing the concepts they learned and also share them with classmates

Polyup. A playground for students to explore computational thinking by working through “machines” at their own pace. Polyup offers free access to many resources for students and educators, as well as support for parents to explore during remote learning. Students in grades K through 12 can choose from the many “machines” available, and it offers the option to learn about the SDGs through Polyup. For help while working on the machines, “Polypedia” offers definitions and relevant terms for learning more about CT.

Popfizz. Available for students in grades 6-12 and also an online PD provider for teachers wanting to learn more about computer science. Through the CS Pathway, middle and high school teachers can explore hundreds of activities, labs and lessons to provide opportunities for students to develop coding skills in Java, Python, Javascript and even AP Computer Science. Educators can select from different options including bootcamps and self-paced lessons for professional development. Educators can request access to free curriculum through July.

There are many benefits of learning about computational thinking. Students will learn something quite valuable that they can apply at a larger scale in their daily lives, for other classes and the future.  Helping students to learn to extrapolate information that is unnecessary, and look for key points or terms, can help with some of the struggle that students sometimes experience when learning something new. Building skills of problem solving, critical thinking and analysis will benefit students now and in the future.

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