Computers and Computational Thinking – A “throwback” to the future of thinking

The more I read about computational thinking, the more it seems to me to be mis-named. It is abundantly clear to me that critical/analytical/process-oriented thinking is required in any task/lesson/unit plan that utilizes the schema of computational thinking. But the “computational” part always conjures up in mind an image of a “computer” – which reduces it all to a physical piece of hardware and distracts from the essence, which I believe is the thought processes and dispositions of the 21st century learner. I am amused that the learner dispositions are described so broadly while the label is such a “throwback”!

In fact, computational thinking is often described in such an expansive way as to almost suggest that any kind of problem can be solved by applying this kind of thinking. An article written last year by Elizabeth Jones of the University of California raises this very point. Computational thinking, she suggests, simply encourages people to approach problem-solving as a process, as a series of steps to be taken in the effort to reach a solution. Put this way, I am similarly tempted to ask what makes this mode of thinking particularly unique or particularly computer-based.

I would also argue, alongside Jones, that there are nevertheless and indeed some kinds of thinking that preclude a process-oriented approach – particularly a moral dilemma or a question of personal values, or even something that requires a fair degree of creativity and personal opinion, such as the writing of this blog. Decisions that I am making about my writing are based on principles such as what I want to get out of this experience, what I want my reader to take away from it. And, simply, what sounds subjectively “just right” to me.

Even so, I believe I can, after all, get past the apparently illogical labeling and appreciate computational thinking as a new, 21st century style of critical thinking when theComputer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) exhorts me to consider these unique factors:

  • Computational thinking IS more tool-oriented.
  • While our human brains can perform as powerful problem-solvers, we have the power to enhance this performance with computers and various digital tools.
  • “The solution to a problem can usually be carried out by a human or machine, or more generally, by combinations of humans and machines.
  • And we all need to understand how, when, and where computers and other digital tools can help us solve problems, and we all need to know how to communicate with others who can assist us with computer-supported solutions.”

Basically, I am being challenged to re-consider “problem-solving” and how it can be served with different kinds of overlapping thinking such as logical, algorithmic thinking, as well as logical and systems thinking, parallel thinking, compositional reasoning, pattern matching, procedural thinking, and recursive thinking. If computational thinking is a handy “catch-all” label for this impressive list, then I can certainly roll with it.

Indeed, in my final project, I have explicitly listed IT and Computational Thinking skills/dispositions alongside one another on my grading sheet. This will definitely draw some blanks from the students in my Grade 8 history classes – which means I can start this conversation once again – from the top. So, step 1….!

When a picture is NOT worth a thousand words – a challenge to visual literacy

I was a bit deflated to discover that the oft-quoted proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words” is, quite possibly, a good deal more modern than I’d thought.  According to both Wikipedia and a Cambridge professor (will that do for an effort at cross-referencing?!), while the phrase is often attributed a Chinese origin, and while the idea has such a compelling logic that it has no doubt cropped up from time to time throughout history, neither Confucius nor Napolean can claim it. Its origin is far less auspicious, apparently. The story goes that a publicist from the 1920s did what everyone in the advertising industry has always sought to do, and that is to take something rather ordinary and raise it to at least daily, household significance by infusing it with sentiment or gravity – or, in this case, the cachet of ancient Chinese wisdom.

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So, with this bit of a blow to the case for visual literacy, I wondered what else could be said for the opposing viewpoint. It does, after all, seem completely obvious that a single picture can do the job of a great many words. But a thousand, as per the faux-Chinese proverb? Well, it turns out that some researchers have actually attempted to nail this number down a bit. Neuroscientists have plumbed the depths of the human brain with MRI technology to answer this question, while others have tried something a bit more straightforward, such as simply tallying and averaging the number of words used to describe the information in a single diagram – and the answer was rather short of 1000 … more like 84.1.

Indeed, other research into pictorial and textual notations suggests there are limitations to pictures,  limitations that the faux-Chinese proverb rather misrepresents.

For example, there is a limit to the comprehension benefit of pictures if there are cultural biases in the pictorial conventions (e.g. the assumption that a cartoon should be read left to right). Also, the concept of motion being implied by a static image, could be both culturally and developmentally challenging for some children. Then there is other anti-Presentation-Zen research that suggests that combinations of pictures and text are more memorable than either alone. While yet more research suggests that illustrations for a concept already very familiar to the reader/viewer does not benefit retention of ideas. In addition, my own experiences of early reading with my eldest child is that pictures can actually distract from text and slow down reading – an anecdote also supported by research.

So, is there a point when words actually matter more than pictures? I am going to offer just one example for the affirmative. A few days ago, I went on a school-related trip to Malaysia. My youngest daughter, who has just recently “clicked” to reading (and is therefore still heavily reliant on pictures for decoding text, by the way) completely blew me away when she presented me with a drawing upon my departure. She is a regular little artist and takes great pride in her latest mermaid or princess illustration. Recently, she has just started adding words. First it was her name. Then, probably prompted by her dad, a wobbly attempt at “I love you.” But, this particular morning I had been aware of her feverishly working away, quite independently, on another creation, as I packed my suitcase nearby. Eventually, she came up to me and dramatically draped the A4 page over the bag. This time, I noticed, the ratio of picture to text was dramatically different from her previous efforts, with text being the big winner, because weaving around the illustration was the most  beautiful, most memorable phrase:

I luv yoo happe brf[da]y I luv yoo aw tho [way] too the moon.

As I write this blog post, missing my family, I can’t recall the accompanying picture. At all. In fact – at least in this case – the picture wasn’t worth a single one of those wonderful words.

Opening Up

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”

~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Unfortunately, although I now have the relative luxury of my laptop and Microsoft Office Word 2007, I don’t feel that the writing is coming any easier. And Mr. Smith was making these dramatic claims as a sportswriter, after all. Isn’t that simply a matter of collecting clichés? Whereas I, on the other hand, am tasked with writing something worth reading on the subject of education and how we can turbo-charge it with digital power-tools.

I have tormented myself with inaction over this blogging assignment since it was first proposed by Jeff. The tech part I feel I can figure out by myself or with the help of a kindly middle school IT coordinator in exchange for extra play dates/babysitting for her young children. And the education part – no worries there. I love it. I got into teaching for the learning.

It’s the composing and exposing of myself that is excruciating for me.

William Wordsworth isn’t much help: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” he says. Thanks for that. It’s the echoing emptiness in my head that makes me so hyper-aware of my heartbeat anyway, and I’m already heavy-breathing (or maybe it would be classed as hyperventilating now) about the prospect of 8 blogs and a looming end-of-course deadline.

A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.  ~Charles Peguy

That’s more like it. I picture my incredibly intelligent colleagues with fingers fairly flying over their keyboards as their reflections on teaching through technology enliven the blogosphere. Their wisdom – complete thoughts, rich sentences – sprout forth fully formed …Meanwhile, my process is more of the gut-wrenching, hara-kiri variety.

Surely writing would come more easily at this point if I felt I had anything of value to say, anything to add to the already loud chorus out there about digital tools and their potential for pushing us into a new paradigm for understanding teaching and learning. But why should I add my timorous voice to the bold banter of the expert bloggers out there?

Okay, so I understand the point of writing – on a personal level. I am a teacher of writing, after all. For years I have been explaining to the raised eyebrows in my classroom that we write to think. We write to give ourselves pause for thought. (A looooong pause, in my case.) We write to think more deeply. The writing process should be a process of personal discovery, of learning. To promote critical thinking and earnest self-analysis is the bottom line of our mission as teachers, right?

The new NETs for Teachers get to this, of course: “teachers should promote student reflection … to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning and creative processes” (1c). Can you guess which tid-bit I conveniently exchanged for an ellipsis?

And, yes, if it’s good for them, it’s good for me too. Of course, I’m going to want to distance myself from the type of teacher parodied in this YouTube clip: When I become a teacher YouTube Preview Image (which is pretty much a video version of the old, offensive adage: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”)

But I haven’t just been asked to write for me. I’m writing for my peers, and whoever else stumbles across me out there in cyberspace. This scares the pants off me. Now it’s a whole other ball game. We’re talking not only about writing to think, or writing as a dialogue between student and teacher, but writing to PUBLISH. And this is where I wrestle with the value of blogging for me. I have always considered that the role of a writer (a writer who seeks a public audience, that is, publication) is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say. (Referentially and deferentially yours ~Anaïs Nin) If I don’t have anything new to bring, why bring it? I know a bit of blog cross-referencing and name-mentioning is a nice form of flattery for other bloggers, but that’s just Commenting, not Writing.

Shelly Blake-Plock, in his post on Why Teachers Should blog (from TeachPaperless blog) describes a poor wretch of a student in his education class who sounds a lot like me. The student complained that he had nothing to blog about because he had nothing to offer to advance the discussion. Blake-Plock says his student is wrong. To blog is to teach yourself to think, he says, and then goes on to admonish the student for over-thinking. Stop it, he says. Don’t think too much, just write. Just bare your brains out there. Be embarrassed. Be confronted by your own inadequacies, amplified exponentially by the very public nature of your idiocy. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, have another go. Think again. Grow. And grow up. That’s the point of the exercise.

But is failure a prerequisite for greater understanding? Must that failure be on a grand scale, in front of a broad readership, which includes the people I have to front up to work with tomorrow?

Must we struggle, must we fail, must we do it spectacularly and in public?

Haven’t some significant contributors to human progress done so without epic failure or even initial embarrassment? Have their endeavors always been collaborative? Haven’t they had space to think/invent/compose in private? Or at least to determine their audience – who the great work is revealed to, and when? Do I owe myself and/or my students some space to do the same? Or should we be forced into the full glare of the online world on somebody else’s timetable?

Blake-Pock declares that it is teachers who have “the power to teach a generation that to fully live and to fully know one’s self is to fully live and to fully know one’s self in the public conversation.” Wow! Is public success and failure the only kind that really counts? Is there no personal, private triumph? (Heck, I’m feeling a small victory coming on as I near the end of this post!) Just because we can – because we have this vehicle, this world wide web, to reach across the globe – is there an imperative to do so?

Can’t we just read our history (and an expert’s top 10 list of expert blogs on the subject) and learn from the mistakes of others?