Computational thinking has been defined as the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing a solution in such a way that a third party, whether human or computer, can effectively carry it out. And according to Jeannette Wing, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Research who first coined the term in a Viewpoint article in the March 2006 issue of Communications, teaching children to learn how to think computationally would yield benefits beyond the computer science discipline, and essentially transform every discipline, profession, and sector.
In the decade since Wing's paper was published, teaching computer science (CS)—and by extension, computational thinking—has been introduced in college programs, and even in many K-12 programs.
However, Marisa Wolsky, an executive producer at public radio/television station WGBH Boston, believes computational thinking can be taught to even younger students, and says television is the appropriate vehicle to deliver that message. Along with researchers from the Educational Development Center (EDC), an organization founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers to improve education, health, and economic opportunities for people of all ages, Wolsky and her team are creating an animated television show called Monkeying Around that uses four monkeys to teach basic computational thinking concepts to preschool children. The program is funded by a $3-million National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2016.
"I think we've learned through all of our projects, and research has shown, that the earlier [children] start, the better, and especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have great access to public media," Wolsky says. "The idea is that we really want to build a foundation for kids prior to them entering school, so that they're ready to learn once they get there."
Wolsky and her team are working with EDC researchers to create a blueprint that identifies the key educational goals of the program, and will then design a plan for how those skills will be conveyed. The team will also work with Tufts University computer science professor Marina Bers and researchers from the Center for Digital Education, a national research and advisory institute that helps education and industry leaders effectively incorporate new technologies, to measure the impact and effectiveness of the show.
The primary goal of the program is to use animated monkeys to teach basic goals around sequencing and algorithms, such as identifying situations where an order matters to accomplishing a goal, or to put a set of items into order, according to Heather Lavigne, a researcher at EDC working on the program. "After some of these basic skills develop, they can work on identifying more advanced skills, like identifying sequences in real life, and eventually moving them towards the ability to create their own algorithms for accomplishing their tasks," she says.
One of the key drivers and benefits of teaching young children to think computationally is that these skills—defining processes, creating algorithms, and learning how to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct a solution to a problem—can be utilized beyond computer science, and can positively impact how students learn math, writing, and other subject areas.
"The practices of computer science can be lessons that transfer into other domains to just help students navigate school and their educational experience for the rest of their lives," says Leigh Ann DeLyser, Co-Chair, Steering Committee, for the CSforAll Consortium (according to its website, "a hub for the national Computer Science for All movement that works to enable all students in grades K-12 to achieve CS literacy as an integral part of their educational experience").
DeLyser cited research with kindergarteners in the 1980s, conducted by Sharon Carver at Carnegie Mellon University, which focused on teaching children a specific practice for debugging their Logo programs, and demonstrated that once they learned that process, they were able to apply it to writing tasks they were given, and other activities in an English language arts class.
"There's been research that shows kids as early as kindergarten can learn these practices and use them, not only when they're writing code, but also in other areas to improve performance," DeLyser says.
Other educational researchers agree, noting that children are already learning sequencing, pattern recognition, and other problem-solving skills at a young age.
"It is possible to teach young kids computational thinking concepts through narratives and unplugged activities," says Mark R. Nelson, past executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). "There is some research to support this approach. Focusing on computational thinking before [fourth grade] is a good idea, and consistent with the standards."
Indeed, the K12 Framework on Computer Science in Early Childhood Education led by ACM, Code.org, CSTA, the Cyber Innovation Center, and the National Math and Science Initiative highlights the four key concepts that are integral to early childhood play—patterns, problem solving, representation, and sequencing—which form the basis of foundational knowledge and understanding for later engagement in computer science at the elementary school level.
As such, an educational approach using computational thinking can take these concepts, and then help children take the next step in fully deconstructing a process, and then provide the tools needed to clearly explain it to others.
"A kid learns how to tie their shoes, and that is a sequential process; someone teaches them and they repeat it," says Pat Yongpradit, the chief academic officer of Code.org, a non-profit dedicated to promoting computer science education. "What computational thinking does is it requires them to think a little more about precision and communicating that same process externally. So rather than just internalizing it and doing it, now they must think about their thinking. So it's a bit of metacognition here, where they have to think, 'okay, so if I'm communicating the same process, how do I communicate it step by step?'"
Educators also believe television may be a good medium through which these concepts can be conveyed, based largely on the past success of shows such as Sesame Street, which has been praised widely for its ability to teach both hard and soft skills.
"So, from a very early age, Sesame Street has been an opportunity for kids to engage with numbers, colors, letters, early reading skills through a television program," DeLyser says. "And I know that Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) actually has tons of studies that show students who aren't enrolled in universal Pre-k or other Pre-K programs who engage with Sesame Street programming have shown an increase in those skills over students who don't."
Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in Lynbrook, NY.