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How do we Integrate Coding and Computational Thinking into K12-Education?

Posted on: September 6, 2021

Written by Ulf Dalvad Berthelsen and Aman Yadav, editor s of Computational Thinking in Education: A Pedagogical Perspective , who discuss how to integrate both coding and computational thinking into K12-Education.

The century of digital computing

Modern day computers are amazing digital multitools that can solve problems and perform complex tasks at incredible speeds. For several years, we have been talking about ubiquitous computing, and how digital technologies are transforming business, industry, science, economy, politics and social relations at a pace that makes it difficult to keep up. Whether we like or not, the 21st century is the century of digital computing.

The educational challenge

This condition challenges us, both as individuals and as a society. On the one hand, digital technologies promise growth and prosperity. On the other hand, these computational tools are difficult to bridle when unleashed. 
Consequently, computational thinking has become one of the hottest topics in education. Because how do we, on the one hand, prepare students for a work life with an ever-increasing demand of computational thinking and coding proficiency, and, on the other, endow the same students with a critical mindset and capacities for using computational technologies in responsible and ethical ways for a democratic society?

These questions are by no means trivial to answer, and they raise a host of new questions for educators, policy makers, and educational researchers to answer. Should computer science be introduced in K12 as a subject in its own right? How can coding and computational thinking merge with existing school subject in meaningful ways? How do we align pedagogy and assessment when computing is introduced in K12 curricula? How do we prepare in-service teachers as well as future teachers?

Pure and applied computational thinking

In order to appreciate the complexity of the challenge of introducing coding and computational thinking into K12-education it might be instructive to compare it to the more familiar K12-domains of literacy and mathematics. If we think about it, there is a striking resemblance between the three domains in that they all have a pure and an applied dimension, which makes it very challenging to develop meaningful and effective pedagogies.

The dilemma is this: Being a good writer requires knowledge of grammar. Knowing grammar, however, is not a sufficient condition for being a good writer. In order to develop literacy, we need to apply grammar, rhetoric, and communicative strategies in authentic contexts and with authentic criteria of success. The same goes for mathematics. We can introduce calculus as abstract formulas, but if we do not apply it in e.g. biology or physics for solving authentic problems, it becomes difficult to grasp.

Same is true of coding and computational thinking. We can study abstraction, algorithms, and the structure of programming languages as abstract phenomena, but if we do not think about solving authentic problems computationally, and we do not engage in actual scripting in one or the other programming language, chances are that both teachers and students will find it very difficult to see relevance.

Integration of coding and computational thinking in K12

Thus, thinking about integrating computational thinking and coding in K12 means thinking about two intimately intertwined problems: 1) how do we integrate computational thinking, coding, and subject matter in relevant and meaningful ways and 2) how do develop standards, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in ways that actually reflects the complexity of the matter?