What Is Computational Thinking?
Senior Project Manager Carolyn Sykora outlines ISTE’s
work on an NSF grant to define computational thinking
and create resources that facilitate its teaching
What is computational thinking, and what skills would a student exhibit as a computational thinker? In April, a group of educators and
researchers met to explore these questions.
Academics have vigorously debated these questions since
2006, when Jeannette Wing of Carnegie Mellon University
wrote and published Computational Thinking, which outlines her viewpoint that “ubiquitous computing is to today
as computational thinking is to tomorrow. Ubiquitous
computing was yesterday’s dream that became today’s
reality; computational thinking is tomorrow’s reality.”
ISTE and the Computer Science Teachers Association
(CSTA) took up the challenge to define computational
thinking as something that can be understood, valued,
and implemented by K– 12 teachers. The project, funded
by the National Science Foundation, will include the development of prototype resources that teachers can use to
implement computational thinking in their classrooms.
The group that met in April agreed on many things:
•;Students need computational thinking skills to be
competitive in today’s global knowledge economy.
•;The foundational skills of computational thinking
can be introduced in elementary school, and students
can progressively build higher-order skills throughout
•;Educators can and should teach computational thinking
within computer science courses and beyond, across all
So what does computational thinking look like? In some
cases, teachers are already facilitating computational thinking with their students but don’t recognize it as such. For
example, in the younger grades, a teacher might focus
students on sequencing, collecting, and analyzing data or
developmentally appropriate algorithmic thinking. In the
48 Learning & Leading with Technology | August 2010
upper grades, students may explore open-ended, inquiry-based problems that require a tolerance for ambiguity or
confidence in dealing with complexity.
For many, recognizing how to apply computational thinking in math or science is a much smaller leap than applying
it to language arts, the social sciences, or humanities. In
language arts, for example, applying computational thinking
can include performing a linguistic analysis of sentences.
Identifying patterns for different sentence types can be
components of data collection and analysis. Using similes
and metaphors can exemplify abstraction, and using a spell
checker can illustrate automation.
As ISTE and CSTA work with K– 16 educators and
education leaders as well as specialists at district and state
levels to refine the definition of computational thinking, we
will be identifying target audiences, messages, and prototype resources. The April meeting kicked off the discussion
and was followed by a session at ISTE 2010 to get feedback
on an operational definition and brainstorm resources that
would help teachers implement this kind of learning across
a variety of curriculum areas. A practitioners workshop,
slated for November, will bring together a group of teachers, curriculum developers, and staff developers to write
prototype resources for implementation in K– 12.
Principal investigators Leslie Conery from ISTE and
Chris Stephenson from CSTA are collaborating on a joint
project for the NSF called “Leveraging Thought Leadership
for Computational Thinking in the K– 12 Curriculum.”
NSF recognized their expertise and leadership in bringing
together educators from K– 12 with computer scientists
to explore and build consensus around this concept.
ISTE and CSTA recognize the exciting potential this
project has to meet our respective missions and help bring
about the systemic change to develop tomorrow’s students
into strong computational thinkers.