The benefits of computational thinking

December 2015

Child with laptop thinkingPhillip Snalune, co-founder of the Codio coding and content platform, discusses why computational thinking is an important skill for school students to acquire, to enable them to contribute to the UK’s changing workforce…

Problem solving, analysing the validity of solutions and spotting patterns in data - these are all essential skills for the workplace and are now taught in schools grouped under the title of ‘computational thinking’. This term has been much discussed amongst educationalists as UK schools get to grips with a new computing curriculum designed to equip pupils with such skills, and to reduce the skills gap between education and the workplace.

So what actually is ‘computational thinking’? It is the thought processes involved in problem solving, so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be effectively carried out by an information-processing agent, such as a computer. Core concepts involved in computational thinking include:

  • algorithmic thinking - developing a set of instructions or sequence of steps to solve a problem;
  • evaluation - ensuring a solution is fit-for-purpose;
  • decomposition - breaking a problem down into its component parts;
  • abstraction - hiding detail or removing complexity without losing the important detail required to solve a problem;
  • generalisation - finding a general approach to a set of problems.

Computational thinking is not to be confused with coding or programming and is also beneficial for those who are not using a computer. However, ultimately, applying computational thinking to solve problems or create solutions will involve programming a computer to generate the desired results in the wide range of careers which involve the use of technology.

Creativity is important when applying computational thinking principles to a problem. Programming is a fundamentally creative skill - whether it is used to create a search algorithm, build an app or design a website.

Why is it so important in the workplace?

So much of modern day business is about problem solving - whether that’s making small improvements to enhance the efficiency of a business, or creating breakthrough products and services for consumers.

Computational thinking runs through every aspect and function of a modern business. It has become more crucial in the 21st century workplace where so much is now data-driven - analysing consumer behaviour, the movement in financial markets and the performance of public services, like health or policing, are just a few job roles that require individuals to be able to think through problems in a way that a computer could understand.

Even if someone is not then in a position to create a solution using programming languages and computers, being able to understand and think through business problems using the aforementioned concepts is vital.

Computational thinking skills are beneficial to careers in virtually every sector, including consumer products, business and financial markets, energy, travel and tourism, or public services such as healthcare, education and law and order. Workplaces need employees to take an active role in thinking problems through and creating solutions.

Computational thinking can be applied to any function of a commercial business or public service. Planning and forecasting are based on patterns of generalisation or abstraction. Designing the user journey for a retail e-commerce site involves being able to break a problem down into its component parts, using decomposition techniques, and constructing a sequence of steps to solve the issue using algorithmic thinking.

Is the UK workforce equipped with these sorts of skills?

Currently the UK workforce has too many consumers of technology and not enough creators. Too few people have the skills to think through problems, challenges and solutions in computational terms. It’s no longer sufficient to view these aspects of business or public service as something that is solved by a specialist group in a business - for example, the IT department or a developer group. Every function of a business needs to contribute.

Jobs that were traditionally not dependent on technology are now becoming data-driven, and using computers effectively is a vital skill for all employees. Long seen as the preserve of geeks or ‘IT people’, computational thinking and the programming of computers to solve problems and create solutions is now firmly embedded across every function of a business or public service.

Just look at how digital in the broadest sense has transformed the use of information and technology in the marketing and customer facing functions of any business. So much of a business’s interaction with customers is now data and insight driven, that it has never been more important to have the skills to interpret the data, generate actionable insight and adapt accordingly.

Theory vs practice

Recently there has been much discussion in education circles about how computational thinking can be learnt without ever touching a computer. Elements of this are true - computational thinking does not apply exclusively to computing, it is a great skill and a way of thinking that can be applied in many contexts. So the theory is useful to learn.

However, it really comes to life and the best benefits are gained when it is put into practice using technology. Computational thinking allows people to collaboratively work with computers in order to get the best use out of them. Even those who advocate learning to think in a computational way without using technology admit that eventually, using it to solve problems creatively with computers has to happen in the ever-changing workplace.

How is the education system helping?

Computing is now a mandatory subject in the national curriculum from KS1-3, following curriculum changes implemented in the 2014/2015 academic year. Consequently, the UK has a golden opportunity to make a generational shift in the skillset of the emerging workforce, thriving on the new jobs and challenges which are emerging all the time.

To reap this potential, three challenges must be addressed by schools. Firstly, teachers need to be adequately trained and supported to teach the computing curriculum confidently - the majority of computing teachers are not subject specialists and are being asked to teach computing for the first time.

Secondly, head teachers and curriculum leaders should be funding computing properly and affording it the importance it deserves - some schools still do not teach computing as a stand alone subject, but embed it into other subjects. Whilst cross-curricula learning can be a good thing, too often it is a foil for not investing in the subject adequately and prevents teachers and students from embracing the subject properly. 

Finally, schools must champion both theory and practice - at Codio we believe that the two are not mutually exclusive and, when combined, can lead to fantastic results in classrooms and also produce young people with a great skill set to take on to the workplace.

It is crucial for teachers to have the tools and resources for teaching computing uniquely integrated in an experience that stimulates engagement and unlocks student potential.

The Codio coding and content platform does this, and teachers enrolled on the BCS Certificate in Computer Science Teaching can access the platform and its learning resources for free. They can use all curriculum materials (programming and non-programming related), develop their computational thinking skills with resources like Crunch, (Codio’s modern day alternative to Little Man Computer), learn to code using our Introduction to Programming Courses, or create their own programming projects using Codio’s IDE and coding platform.

By providing this free access to teachers, I hope we can contribute to ensuring the next generation will be equipped with the computational thinking and accompanying practical programming skills to make a real contribution to the UK workforce - creating and not just consuming.

Image: iStock/482393248

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    Leslie Smith wrote on 2nd Dec 2015

    I've been teaching Computational Thinking (2 lectures) to the 1st year class here at Stirling University for few years. Before I started I wrote a brief essay, see http://www.cs.stir.ac.uk/~lss/CSCU9A1/ComputationalThinking.pdf . Having done it now for a few years, I think it is a reasonable approach.

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