20 September 2022

Computational thinking as a fundamental skill used by everyone by the middle of the 21st Century

Author: Jan Bazyli Klakla,


We all agree that the school should not only impart knowledge, but also help develop specific skills. The catalog of these skills seems to be unchanged for years: it includes, among others, reading, writing, arithmetic, and group work. However, this immutability seems puzzling when we look at the pace of changes in the contemporary world. New times require new skills and according to many, one of them is computational thinking.

The challenges posed by new technologies and the changing world are not only those related to operating new devices, but also those linked with the changing way in which we perceive the world and solving problems that arise in it. A natural consequence of this is the view that students should be equipped with a set of skills that include expressing problems and their solutions in a way appropriate to the times in which they will live.

Perhaps the most recognizable advocate for computational thinking as a new skill for the new era is Jeanette M. Wing, former Vice President of Microsoft Research and professor of computer science at Columbia University. As she says:  My grand vision is that computational thinking will be a fundamental skill—just like reading, writing, and arithmetic—used by everyone by the middle of the 21st Century.

Computational thinking – a fundamental skill?

The above statement may seem controversial: after all, reading, writing and arithmetic at first glance are much more universal and basic skills than computational thinking, which is associated primarily with computer science. However, to grasp the idea of supporters of computational thinking in school, one should break with this association and understand, again using the words of Jeanette M. Wing, that computer science offers not just useful software and hardware artifacts, but also an intellectual framework for thinking.

Considering computational thinking not in terms of a specialized tool, but the intellectual framework for thinking, gives this skill a much more universal character. So what exactly is it?

It is the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solution(s) in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can effectively carry out. More precisely, the scope of computational thinking includes the knowledge of logic, the ability to assess the problem, find patterns in it, propose automation of solutions and make adequate generalizations. Above all, however, it includes not just problem solving, but also problem formulation.

Introducing computational thinking into education

Importantly, the idea of introducing computational thinking into education, contrary to the fears of some, does not involve abandoning humanistic thinking about education and, more broadly, the world. In the proposed ideas, it is often emphasized that computational thinking science is by no means intended to teach people to think like machines. On the contrary, computational thinking is a way humans solve problems, with or without the use of computer tools.

Jeannette M. Wing writes with disarming frankness for a computer science professor – computers are dull and boring. In contrast, humans are clever and imaginative and they make computers exciting. The computational thinking skill can help us use the potential offered by new technologies, but is not inextricably linked with them. A good example is a joint project by Google, Microsoft and the University of Canterbury called CS Unplugged. This is a collection of free learning activities that teach computational thinking without computers. This happens through engaging games and puzzles that use cards, string, crayons and lots of running around.

Therefore, introducing computational thinking to schools does not have to, and should not, be based solely on expanding the computer science curriculum. This issue combines not only knowledge in the field of mathematics and computer science, but also all other subjects that concern problem solving: biology, chemistry, physics, of course, but also social sciences, history and languages. Hence, projects that work to integrate computational thinking into existing discipline-specific courses and attempts by incorporating computational thinking across the curriculum.

Such tests are carried out all over the world. The movement is driven by researchers such as Amber Settle, Aman Yadabv and Valerie Barr in the USA, Stefania Bocconi in Italy, Fredrik Heintz, Jalal Nouri and Linda Mannila in Northern Europe, Siu-Cheung Kong in Hong Kong and Weng Kin Ho in Singapore. At the Holistic Think Tank, we will also continue to look at this topic.

Recommended sources:

Bocconi, Stefania, et al. “Exploring the field of computational thinking as a 21st century skill.” Proceedings of the EDULEARN16 16 (2016): 4725-4733.

CS Unplugged – Computer Science without a computer, https://csunplugged.org/en/

Heintz, Fredrik, et al. “Computing at school in Sweden–experiences from introducing computer science within existing subjects.” International Conference on Informatics in Schools: Situation, Evolution, and Perspectives. Springer, Cham, 2015.

Ho, Weng Kin, et al. “Can secondary school mathematics students be taught to think computationally.” Proceedings of the 23rd Asian technology conference in mathematics. Mathematics and Technology, LLC, 2018.

Kong, Siu-Cheung, and Harold Abelson. Computational thinking education. Springer Nature, 2019.

Mannila, Linda, et al. “Computational thinking in K-9 education.” Proceedings of the working group reports of the 2014 on innovation & technology in computer science education conference. 2014.

Settle, Amber, Debra S. Goldberg, and Valerie Barr. “Beyond computer science: computational thinking across disciplines.” Proceedings of the 18th ACM conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education. 2013.

Wing, Jeannette M. “Computational thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49.3 (2006): 33-35.

Wing, Jeannette M. “Computational thinking benefits society.” 40th Anniversary Blog of Social Issues in Computing 2014 (2014): 26.

Yadav, Aman, et al. “Computational thinking as an emerging competence domain.” Competence-based vocational and professional education. Springer, Cham, 2017. 1051-1067.