Computational and design thinking in the classroom
By Susan Brooks-Young
I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. What does it mean to be a “good” thinker? What kinds of abilities do good thinkers exhibit? Are they creative, effective problem solvers who are logical and able to view things with a critical eye? Or does it mean something else entirely?
Goodness knows there are a number of thinking models to choose from, such as concrete, abstract, creative, reflective, computational, and design. The latter two, computational and design thinking, are specifically referenced in Standards 4 and 5 (Innovative Designer and Computational Thinker, respectively) of the ISTE Standards for Students.
Given the potential for using education technology to support learning environments where students are challenged to think, it seemed natural to devote this column to an overview of computational and design thinking.
It’s tempting to assume that computational thinking and design thinking aren’t all that different — but that would be a mistake. While there are similarities, there are also significant differences. Let’s begin with a couple of anecdotes that reflect real-world application of one or the other of these approaches to thinking. Take a moment to read each one and decide which method it reflects.
My sister worked as a registered nurse and then as a hospital administrator throughout her career. From time to time, situations arose where medical staff needed to help a patient by finding a speedy way to fix or modify equipment using whatever materials happened to be readily available. She and her colleagues called this “MacGyvering” after the main character in a television series. (In the show, MacGyver improvised elegant solutions for complex situations that often relied on duct tape, paper clips, a pocketknife, and other found items.) At the hospital, staff would see a patient in need and, when necessary, quickly devise something that would enable them to help the patient — hence the term MacGyvering. What type of thinking does this reflect?
Members of a small group take turns hosting a monthly buffet supper for their friends. A recent hostess decided to set up the buffet in her kitchen, using a counter to the left and an island to the right. The menu featured appetizers, beverages, and a build-your-own main-dish salad. Items on the island included (in order): plates, napkins, and utensils; appetizers; and beverages. Items on the counter included (in order): meats for the salad; greens; edible shell bowls to hold the salad; and finally, toppings and dressings. The items on the counter were in the wrong order entirely. Instead of building a salad from shell to lettuce, meats, and toppings, guests bobbed and weaved around one another as they leapfrogged from one salad ingredient to the next. What type of thinking could have solved the serving problem?
The first anecdote is an example of design thinking: identifying a specific need for an end user and designing a solution. The second anecdote describes a missed opportunity to use computational thinking. In this case, the hostess failed to identify and use a pattern of food placement that would facilitate moving guests through a self-serve line.
Let’s take a closer look at both types of thinking and some ways each can be employed to help students think more deeply. While each are referenced in ISTE’s Standards for Students, neither approach requires technology to be used effectively. We’ll begin with computational thinking.
Computational thinking in the classroom
What is computational thinking? Google for Education defines computational thinking in this way:
Computational thinking (CT) is a problem-solving process that includes a number of characteristics, such as logically ordering and analyzing data and creating solutions using a series of ordered steps (or algorithms), and dispositions, such as the ability to confidently deal with complexity and open-ended problems. CT is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including math, science, and the humanities. Students who learn CT across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as between school and life outside of the classroom.
There are four labels regularly associated with the skills required to use computational thinking to solve a large, complex problem. They are:
Decomposition: breaking a complex problem down into smaller, manageable parts
Pattern recognition: seeing similarities and differences in the smaller parts identified through decomposition
Abstraction: filtering out unnecessary information to identify the information required to understand and solve a problem
Algorithm design: identifying the steps to solve a problem and organizing them into a series of directions that can be used to solve this and similar problems
Proponents of computation thinking maintain that this approach is desirable because it encourages students to deal with ambiguity, recognize patterns, and come up with multiple solutions for a problem. They also advocate for using it across all content areas. One criticism of computational thinking that frequently arises is that the model does not require students to consider the social, ethical, or environmental impacts of their solutions.
Most aspects of computational thinking are already commonplace in classrooms, but they are not necessarily identified as steps in computational thinking. Some examples include collecting and analyzing data, breaking a large task into smaller steps, sequencing, and developing routines for common tasks.
Proponents of computational thinking suggest that intentionally and regularly encouraging students to employ these strategies to solve problems in real-world contexts enables them to become better thinkers.
Resources for computational thinking
Here are some resources that offer additional background information, along with suggestions for ways you can make intentional use of computational thinking in classroom activities.
Computational thinking for all: ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) devotes one of the seven 2016 standards for students to computational thinking, but prior to that, ISTE developed a collection of multimedia, print, and online resources to create a computational-thinking toolkit for educators.
Unplugged activities: Code.org offers a series of offline activities that help students as young as kindergarten learn computational thinking and other coding skills. Lesson plans, video, and support materials are provided.
Google for Education: Exploring Computational Thinking: A collection of videos, lesson plans, and other resources related to computational thinking that educators are welcome to use with their students. This resource also offers a link to a free online course called Computational Thinking for Educators.
Computer Science Unplugged: Stand-alone activities that provide opportunities for students aged 5-12 to learn computational-thinking skills through offline activities.
CT lessons and projects: Located in Los Angeles, Green Dot Public Charter Schools use computational thinking across content areas. This resource offers links to computational-thinking lessons in various academic disciplines for middle- and high-school students.
Design thinking in the classroom
The Interaction Design Foundation defines design thinking as:
… a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s extremely useful in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by understanding the human needs involved, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, by creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and by adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.
Unlike computational thinking, design thinking begins with empathy. When devising any solution to a problem, design thinkers must understand why there is a need and how the solution will solve that problem. For example, before redesigning the layout of a classroom, it would be important to understand why the current space is not working, along with how the space needs to be used by educators and students. The designer can then organize and review this information to determine strategies for meeting the needs of all users. Students may identify a need for mobile-device charging stations in the classroom, while teachers want students to arrive at school each morning with fully charged devices. How can both needs be accommodated?
Design thinking requires a willingness to brainstorm and test multiple ideas before arriving at a solution. Unlike computational thinking, these ideas are not confined to an algorithm design. In design thinking, the process of finding a solution is as important as solving the problem. Hence, the term failing forward is frequently used when talking about this approach to problem solving. This mindset recognizes that a designer’s first idea probably won’t be the best one for solving a problem, but it can provide learning opportunities that result in better ideas. Of course, the time comes when one solution needs to be chosen and implemented, but by then designers are well positioned to make that decision based on what they’ve learned throughout the process.
Resources for design thinking
Would you be interested in learning more about design thinking? Here are a few resources that offer additional background information, along with suggestions for classroom activities.
Talking Tech: The New 2016 ISTE Standards for Students: Innovative Designer: Standard 4 of the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students focuses on helping students become innovative designers. Ronen Cohen’s article ties resources to this ISTE standard.
Beginner’s Guide to K-12 Design Thinking: This LiveBinder curated by Thomas Riddle includes tabs for various design-thinking groups from around the country. Each tab features online resources from that specific group. In addition, there is a tab with links to schools that use design thinking and another that features design-thinking lesson plans and activities.
Design Thinking for Educators: Riverdale Country School in New York teamed up with IDEO, a global design firm to create the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators. This free resource is a comprehensive guide for individual teachers and schools that would like to implement design thinking in classrooms or across campuses.
Design-thinking resources: This resource from Edutopia offers links to an extensive collection of videos and articles about design thinking in education.
Six design-thinking projects that inspire students to dig deeper: Tricia Whenham’s article identifies six activities teachers can use to familiarize students with design thinking. The site also offers a free ebook on collaborative learning skills that teachers are welcome to download.
Educators typically want to provide more opportunities for students to practice skills that enable them to think deeply about problem solving. Students can apply both strategies across the curriculum.
With roots in computer science, computational thinking works well when a problem can be solved by designing and perfecting an algorithm. The lack of consideration of social, ethical, and environmental impacts of a solution is a drawback of the model, but this piece can be incorporated. On the other hand, design thinking allows for a wider range of solution strategies, including algorithm design, and allows failure to be an option. Each model offers important benefits for students.
A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.
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