Computational Thinking

I’m a scientist. I think in terms of what I can see and manipulate. Part of my training included a large amount of time making changes in systems, observing results, and making new changes in order to answer a question. It was systematic, measured, and thorough. Naturally, that tendency bleeds over into my relationships, parenting, hobbies, and pedagogy.

I’ve learned that much of the thinking we do from day to day is to solve problems.

I began learning HTML, CSS, and JavaScript a few years back, which shifted the way I think. I had to approach problems as patterns, analyzing cause-and-effect in real time through trial-and-error. The whole process is strikingly similar to scientific thought processes. I slowly realized that, at the core, programming is comparing true against false; one against zero.

Computational thinking is the process of breaking down problems into true and false statements one step at a time. Each results takes you down a path sequentially. Eventually, you reach the destination you were aiming for through this series of switches.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by uncoolbob

Teaching science is as much about content as it is about thinking. Without thinking, students become repositories for facts with no faculties for problem solving. Thinking as a scientist, it is my responsibility to help students develop the patience and tenacity required to solve new problems to the new world we live in. Content is everywhere; I can look up information as I need it, and the same is true for our students. Finding the context for the content is more important, and exploring relationships with computational thinking processes can help.

I’ve explored the idea of using instructional methods to improve the quality of questions students ask, which would lead directly into idea analysis. Curiosity is natural, but not in the classroom…especially a high school science classroom. Our current expectations for education focus on the right answer, not on the right questions. Because of this, students have been inadvertently trained to disregard the unknown in favor of memorization. Focusing on questions as the basis for learning rather than facts will push our students to be thinkers, not reciters.

Why You Shouldn’t Care When Schools Throw iPads Away

In case you missed it, there were two big stories in the past two weeks about schools selling or destroying their student devices. The Atlantic posted “Why Some Schools Are Selling Their iPads” and took a deep-dive into which device is the “best for interactive learning.” Additionally, Hoboken, NJ, made headlines when they publicly claimed “giving students laptops is a terrible idea.”

What it comes down to is that both schools – and schools across the country – look to devices to change the way teaching and learning happen.


Since Apple released the iPad four years ago, starry-eyed educators have lauded the revolution that was to come. We saw the revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy and introduction of the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning. Suddenly, every school had devices earmarked as a method for changing instruction. Every large computer manufacturer is now in education with devices, vying for attention from schools desperately trying to keep up (often at the expense of other programs but that’s a different discussion).

Rather than asking, “Does this device allow students to easily type?” educators really need to focus on new criterion:

  1. Can the device help students connect with the world? – Think of this as the “fourth wall” of education. Students need opportunities to connect with (both consume and produce) information outside of the building.
  2. Does the device dilute or enhance accessibility? – Often, devices are purchased with accessibility cited as a reason. But, neither teachers nor students receive training on how to enable that functionality.
  3. How will we change classroom practice? – Staff typically receives training in how to use the device, but rarely are they offered training on new methods or approaches to teaching and learning. Without support for changing practice, the computers can destroy a culture of learning.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by yohann.aberkane

I know I shouldn’t read the comments, but I did for both of these. 400+ comments combined, and most of them are disparaging at best. There is a general lack of understanding about why devices are important to the learning process and this is something schools in general are failing to communicate well. Perhaps this is also because of the inappropriate preparation happening when devices are purchased.

So, what can schools do?

  1. Research. – This is not a device pilot. If we’re focusing on larger issues of classroom practice and school culture, then the device doesn’t matter. This means reading research literature on education practice, site visits to neighboring schools, and speaking with experts on education theory. Having a solid pedagogical background will help solidify meaningful change.
  2. Build a core group of educators dedicated to cultural change. – These are the leaders who will slowly begin to help the school shift from one of didactic instruction to dynamic learning.
  3. Advocate for students. – Any change needs to keep students in mind, especially when it comes to large purchases. If the school cannot point to solid reasons (pedagogical and cultural) for why they are spending the money, they need to slow down and evaluate their motivations.

It’s disheartening to see coverage focus on purchases and failed plans rather than success stories and true change. Hopefully, as we continue to mature, we can shift the story.

You’ve Got the Wrong Idea

Do a quick Google search for “disrupt education.” It seems 2013 in particular was a boom for companies looking to disrupt the current education system: MOOCs, apps, product launches, startups…pick your poison.

Disrupting the education space is the wrong way to influence change.

Disrupting has longevity issues. To be noticed in the startup realm, you need to make a big splash. Lots of big talk, lots of buzzwords, and lots of pie-in-the-sky ideas. All of which is geared to help that company get acquired by a larger entity (ahem Google ahem) with solid footing in education. These companies come and go, with lots and lots of money flowing through the door by venture capital. Don’t get burned by jumping on board too early.

Disruption minimizes impact. Because these companies are flying by the seat of their pants, there is very little research into the efficacy of their product on student learning. They all claim to raise scores, increase engagement, and do all the things you’re trying to do, all in one package. Yay! But, when it comes down to it, it’s a fun app for a few days, then it peters out. Students lose interest, teachers drop it. Many of these companies do not work with teachers (more are beginning to, which is nice) to see if the idea even floats in a classroom.

Disruption is niche focused. Our tools are becoming fragmented. You have your assessment app, the review game, the gradebook, and then the one giving you confidence levels…each of these companies focuses on a tiny niche slice of the everyday experience. Education is an artful science. We have to take the big picture into consideration when doing anything with students. As each new single-function app is released, we lose a piece of that picture and at the same time make our job much more complicated.

We need to transform education, not disrupt it.

Transformation is inherently different in scope and mindset than disruption.

Transformation is sustainable. Transformation is built around sustainability. We need to critically look at what education is now and how we can change it moving forward, planning for the future. There are things that need to come and go, but those decisions need to be informed by practice, data, and the impact on student learning.

Transformation is constructive. There are already seeds of change in schools. Administrators, in particular, are preparing for major change by laying a foundation of support for the teachers before student ever catch wind of the shift to come. Transformation is rooted in a community coming together and making a conscious decision to head in a new direction. These schools are building on their strengths and growing together.

Transformation has a wide scope. When you want to change an organization, you have to consider every component. How will it affect staff, students, parents, aides, administrators…without considering every stakeholder, you’re bound for trouble. That means the process is transparent and considers multiple avenues for problem solving. We’re undergoing a holistic shift, not treating symptomatic issues one at a time.

Clarification – I am not advocating that a single entity – company or school – can transform education on their own. True change takes collaborative action with flexibility and cooperation by many different groups.

Improving Questions, Part 2

Before starting this post, please go back and look at Part 1 to get the research justification for the outline below.

In an effort to make research more accessible and visible in the implementation of new ideas, here is a practical, “how-to” explanation of ways to get students to ask better questions.

While all of this can be done with paper and pencil in class, expanding the process to the web brings benefits. Students (and the teacher) can interact when and where they want. If you’re using an open community, you can also get feedback from outside sources. There is also a running record of the interactions asked and answered by each member of the community, which can be used for analysis, assessment, or just judging the health of the community.

Dan Meyer advocates questioning habits through making it a habit to ask. His keynote at CUE gives an example of how he practices asking good questions. (Please watch just a minute or two of the video. It is well worth the time.) This brings us to thing-to-try-number-one:

Have your students keep a list of questions. Not just content questions. Just questions.

Think of this as brain training. There is evidence showing that students who undergo training in asking questions score higher on information-based assessments than groups who do not receive training (Weiner 1978). Now, before you accuse me of reaching too far, the study also notes that they did not study the efficacy of a particular type of training. So, if we take Dan’s example and begin tracking perplexity, we are training our brains to pay attention to our surroundings, which could translate to the classroom. (As a closing side note, Dan also runs a website called 101 Questions which is a fun way to get kids thinking. You can also use it to upload content to get some feedback before using it with students.)

Thinking back to part 1, I gave a brief outline of a method called the “question formulation strategy. So, thing-to-try-number-two:

Try using the QFS rather than a more common tool like the KWL.

I know both strategies essentially do the same thing – get students to reflect on their learning as it happens. I like QFS better because the metacognitive processes the students engage in are open ended and content agnostic. The students are free to ask questions on anything they want, which gives then an open route to make connections on their own. The KWL also has a “finality” to it…once the student learns what they want to know (the “W” column), there is little invitation to continue exploring. QFS, on the other hand, encourages further questioning at every stage.

Finally, thing-to-try-number-three:

Use an online Q&A platform for peer feedback on questionins.

Remember, there is evidence showing that questions alone aren’t enough. We need feedback. I mentiond earlier that StackExchange is a great platform for both asking and answering questions, but the added layer of voting and commenting serves as the quality control. Unfortunately, getting the platform for student use is more complicated.

StackExchange is a private company – the platform is not open source. I did some searching and there are some open-source alternatives which can be used, but they’re not insignificant to get set up.

The way I see it, there is a large community of educators with the know-how and the interest in getting something like I’ve described set up. I’m even willing to throw in my small-beans experience in helping to set up and maintain a site. If there is interest in experimenting with this idea (I’m not in the classroom, or I’d try it myself), leave a comment and we’ll see what we can do.


Weiner, C. J. (1978). The Effect of Training in Questioning and Student Question Generation on Reading Achievement.