Computational Thinking – a core competence for the future

Nobody really knows what the future will be like and what skills will be required to maneuver it. A common suggestion is to rely on the “4C” competences (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication). It could be argued that computational thinking could be added as the fifth “c”. Especially since it can be noted that several of these four competences overlap with computational thinking anyways.

A central element of computational thinking is understanding how algorithms work. According to P.J. Denning, computational thinking is just a new term for another concept, algorithmic thinking, which clearly distinguishes it from coding. Computational thinking is not just about programming, but an entire way of thinking. Computational thinking enables you to work out exactly what to tell the computer to do. This also requires knowledge about what algorithms can and cannot do. Learning to think computationally can ideally promote new perspectives and solutions to problems in many other disciplines.

Computational Thinking in the curriculum

The curriculum of German-speaking Switzerland, “Lehrplan21”, includes several learning goals in computational thinking. However, the term “computational thinking” is not explicitly mentioned. One of the learning goals for informatics states that “Students can analyze simple problems, describe possible solutions and develop them into algorithms”. This echoes a common definition of computational thinking.

In addition to these learning goals, the curriculum “Lernplan21” also includes a new module called “Media and Informatics”. This new module consists of three parts “Media”, “Informatics”, and “Applied competencies in specific subjects”. There is no strict separation of the three parts as they are all thought of as separate subjects, but also integrated into other subjects. For example, the efficient use of a search engine requires knowledge about search algorithms and engines (informatics) as well as knowledge about the business models and filters of search engine providers (media) and applicable knowledge how to use specific search engines (applied knowledge).

Teacher Training and Resources

In order to teach the new subject “Media and Informatics”, teachers require certification. Pre-service teachers received training and certification as part of their program, however, in-service teachers are required to enroll in a post-graduate certification course. There is a time window of five years to complete such a certification course. Each teacher-training institute (PH) developed their own certification course, which led to programs differing in length and depth. To provide a consistent and comparable quality of teacher training, a more coordinated approach would be welcome. Pre-service and professional development programs are crucial to training teachers about computational thinking. Ideally, teachers would receive ongoing professional development as well as on-site support by pedagogical ICT-specialists.

Current Implementation of Computational Thinking in Swiss Schools

Swiss schools across the country are currently implementing a broad range of activities to teach computational thinking. A common approach is making algorithms tangible by using robots. Students learn how to break a task down into separate steps that can then be turned into an algorithm. Such an approach aims to combine theoretical knowledge with actions, a core element of competency-based education.

However, schools still differ in their implementation of computational thinking activities. While some schools are trailblazing, others are just getting started. It is important to have projects like the “Computational Thinking Initiative” that give schools access to well-developed and practice-tested activities. Sharing examples of “good practice” allows schools to learn from one another. As author William Gibson once said “The future is already here – It’s just not very evenly distributed”. To ensure high quality education across the board, it is necessary to continue developing all schools in the country, which requires coordination as well as adequate time for professional development, innovative teaching material and up-to-date infrastructure. Let’s all work together to make it happen.

Dr. Beat A. Schwendimann is Head of Pedagogy, Federation of Swiss Teachers (LCH)