Getting Smart

Early Learning Strategies for Developing Computational Thinking Skills

As our technologies have rapidly developed and manipulating those technologies has emerged as a key college- and career-ready skill, teaching students how to program, question, and manipulate digital devices has become commonplace in our schools. But coding is the application of learning. Before students can effectively perform these tasks, they must understand the concepts behind that application.

Computational Thinking is the prerequisite skill for understanding the technologies of the future. It is a thought process, rather than a specific body of knowledge about a device or language. Computational thinking is often associated with computers and coding, but it is important to note that it can be taught without a device.

For that reason, computational thinking can be a part of any classroom, including the classrooms of our youngest learners in the primary grades. And, I would argue, it is quickly becoming a necessary foundational skill for students. By explicitly teaching, and allowing space for the development of, computational thinking, teachers can ensure that their young students are learning to think in a way that will allow them to access and understand their digital world. Teaching computational thinking, in short, primes students for future success. Furthermore, it can be integrated into existing routines and curricula.

Core Components of Computational Thinking

BBC outlines four cornerstones of computational thinking: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms. Decomposition invites students to break down complex problems into smaller, simpler problems. Pattern recognition guides students to make connections between similar problems and experience. Abstraction invites students to identify important information while ignoring unrelated or irrelevant details. Lastly, students use algorithms when they design simple steps to solve problems.

At first read, it’s challenging to imagine kindergartners solving algorithms. However, each of these cornerstones, at their core, dovetails nicely into the active learning and thinking that happens in grades K-2. Children in the primary grades want to play. They aren’t afraid to take risks. By utilizing the natural inclinations of young children to explore and play, and by encouraging problem-solving skills, we can move students’ thinking forward. Computational thinking encourages playful thinking, but gives it structure so that the skills students are learning can be transferred to more complex tasks later on.

And it’s probably even easier than you might think to invite your youngest learners to join you as inventors and problem-solvers and jump into the world of computational thinking! Here are some ideas for getting started.

Strategies for Incorporating Computational Thinking in Early Learning Classrooms

Teaching Decomposition

Teaching decomposition to young learners means that students are invited into problem-solving scenarios. Teachers share the complex, multi-step problem and facilitate conversations that help students to break it down. While students at these ages are not always developmentally ready for multi-step directions or problems, they are ready to be exposed to models of adult thinking. In doing this, students begin to develop a framework of strategic, computational thinking.

Ideas to Try: Teachers might describe a scenario, such as planning a birthday party, that involves multiple steps. This type of task can quickly become overwhelming without an organized to-do list of smaller, more approachable challenges. Students can help to break down the larger task, and the teacher can help to draw or write a visual representation of their thinking, giving students a mental map of how to solve similar problems in the future.

Teaching Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition, as a cornerstone of computational thinking, begins with the basic ABAB pattern creation that is taught in the primary grades and extends to more complex layers of thinking. Pattern recognition invites students to analyze similar objects or experiences and identify commonalities. By finding what the objects or experiences have in common, young students can begin to develop an understanding of trends and are therefore able to make predictions.

Ideas to Try: To teach students to recognize patterns, you might begin by investigating trees. What do all trees have in common? They all have a trunk. They all have roots. They all have branches. While there are many differences between types of trees, these components are present in all trees.

Next, work with your students to create a collage of trees. Notice how they all have trunks, roots, and branches. Then, talk about how the trunks differ from one another. Some are thick, while others are thin. Some are brown, while others are white. Talk about how the roots and branches differ.

To extend this thinking, invite your students to draw a picture of a tree, labeling the trunk, roots, and branches. Emphasize that while your class’ trees might look different from one another, they are alike in their core components.

Finding patterns simplifies tasks because you can use what you already know. By teaching students to recognize patterns, their awareness of the world around them expands. This helps them to use the patterns they have identified to solve future problems and make predictions about the world.

Teaching Abstraction

Abstraction is focusing on the information that is relevant and important. It involves separating core information from extraneous details.

Ideas to Try: In primary classrooms, teachers naturally teach kids the concept of abstraction with literature as they identify the main idea and key details. To take this one step further, teachers can encourage students to hunt for information, clues, or treasures by giving them a goal as they approach a book or even an experience. As students listen to a speaker during a school presentation about dental hygiene, a kindergarten class might be hunting for details about brushing your teeth. By teaching students abstraction, they are able to sort through all of the information available to identify the specific information they need. This is an invaluable skill as students read larger texts and are presented with more and more complex information.

Teaching Algorithms

Algorithmic thinking involves developing solutions to a problem. Specifically, it creates sequential rules to follow in order to solve a problem. In the early grades, kids can learn that the order of how something is done can have an effect.

Ideas to Try: To present this idea to students, you might ask them to think about making a sandwich. What should we do first? Second? What if I put the cheese and lettuce on my sandwich before I add the mayonnaise? Conversations about sequence and order develop the foundations of algorithmic thinking.

To get students thinking in algorithms, invite them to design the path from their classroom to the gym by detailing a series of steps. Then, let them try it out! Additionally, invite students to think about their morning routine. What steps do they take to get ready for school each morning? How would the order impact the outcome? Asking students to consider how inputs change the outcome encourages them to be reflective in their thinking and to make changes to their plan to achieve the desired result.

Linking our Youngest Minds to the Thinking of the Future

Teaching young students computational thinking strategies goes far beyond increasing their comfort level with computers. It’s much deeper and more profound. We live in a world with Smartphones and Smarthomes, and understanding how devices work allows us to approach technology as a partner to help us solve problems. Computational thinking allows students to be active, rather than passive, users of technology. The manner in which we understand the technology that surrounds us, and the way we ask questions about these devices, will become a significant differentiator in the 21st-century workforce. Those who can do it successfully and efficiently will be better placed for both professional and long-term life success. Preparation for this can and should start with our youngest learners.

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