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Computational Thinking in the Curriculum: What and Why?

Here’s the lowdown on this important concept.

The essential digital skills that our ākonga need are bundled together in the Digital Technologies | Hangarau Matihiko (DTHM) corner of the NZ Curriculum. It’s a relatively new initiative that was intended to roll out in 2020. As so many teachers had plenty on their plates just keeping up with already-existing curriculum areas in 2020 and beyond, the implementation had to take a back seat—but now’s the time for us to take a closer look at what DTHM involves and how it will better equip learners for the future.

DTHM responds to a fast-changing world where technological practices are crucial to so many aspects of work, leisure, and creativity. From the NZ Curriculum website:

“The aim is for students to develop broad technological knowledge, practices and dispositions that will equip them to participate in society as informed citizens and provide a platform for technology-related careers. Students learn that technology is the result of human activity by exploring stories and experiences from their heritage, from Aotearoa New Zealand’s rich cultural environment, and from contemporary examples of technology.”

There are two sides to it, both of which are relevant to all classrooms across the range of subject areas: Designing and developing digital outcomes and computational thinking. We’ve touched briefly on the two in our article about digital transformation vs digital technologies curriculum—and in this article, we’re delving deeper into computational thinking.

What is computational thinking?

Computational thinking is a skill, a process, a way of thinking, and a technique. It is about using the logic of computers—simple, clear, repeatable steps in the right order—to think through a problem or task. The aim is to present a solution that both a human and a computer could understand, so that said humans can use computers as a tool to help them create and problem-solve.

A task as simple as washing dishes, for example, can be broken down into the most basic of steps: Fill sink with water. Add dishwashing liquid. Set up drying rack. Submerge a dirty dish. Scrub it with the brush until clean. Rinse. Stack in the drying rack. Repeat steps four through seven for each dirty dish. Empty the sink once all dirty dishes have been cleaned. Leave the drying for someone else to do.

Computational thinking will allow tamariki to better understand what can and cannot be achieved by a computer. It creates a good base for core programming concepts.

The four primary skills involved in computational thinking are as follows:

  • Decomposition, or breaking down a task, problem, or process into smaller and separate parts.

  • Pattern recognition, or finding similarities and repeats within or among problems.

  • Abstraction, or seeking out the most important information from each problem; determining which details are irrelevant. What is the core essence of this problem, really?

  • Algorithmic thinking, or the creation of a step-by-step process for solving the problem that is replicable by humans and computers.

Why is computational thinking important in the NZ curriculum?

Equipping students to create and communicate clear instructions for a predictable, reliable outcome will be useful not only in computer classes or programming careers but in many different areas of life, work, education, and leisure. The world is—and will increasingly be—driven by computers, and we want our students to be able to swim in these waters rather than simply be swept along in the digital current.

Incorporating computational thinking into the curriculum will give our tamariki a better understanding of how computers process and represent data. They will learn how data can be organised, how to troubleshoot using logic, and how to better master the technology that surrounds them.

This Q&A paper with computer scientist Tim Bell puts it well:

“By gaining mastery over the basic ideas of digital systems, students are empowered to understand the digital world in which they live… In the same way that students need to understand some science to form a view on climate change, or they need to understand social and cultural issues to form a view on politics and conflicts, they need to know some basics of the concepts underlying digital technologies to make reasonable decisions about the digital systems that interact with almost every move we make.”

If you are interested in topics like this one and would like to arrange further training or resources for your team, get in touch with Think e-Learning! We love to help digital leaders create roll-out strategies for DTHM in their kura and bring their whole team along for this important transformation.


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