Thursday, July 26, 2012

Computational thinking


Now that I have a year under my belt, I would like to think that I'm a little wiser. I know how to be really, really inefficient while planning lessons. Goal number one of next year: be a little less inefficient.

A chief cause of the hours I would spend planning a poor lesson was an overload of ideas and resources. I would spend far too long reading through ideas, half starting, and thinking. Then I'd run out of time, underplan an inquiry-based activity, and run a bunch of copies of worksheets. During the lesson, I'd get frustrated by the students' lack of initiative and interest (caused by a lack of support and clarity).

And repeat, day after day. Lots of time spent planning lessons that could have taken ten minutes to plan.

I would like to be a little less inefficient.

My plan is to focus on one specific framework. Instead of trying to do many different things because their cool, I want use a more focused set of ideas to both give my teaching more consistency and my planning more efficiency.


Framework: Computational Thinking

What is computational thinking (CT)? Combine critical thinking with the power of modern computing. This is not trivial – it is a significant shift in how we develop students' ability to solve interesting problems.

There are several ways of breaking down CT. Google and ISTE both offer definitions and resources. Some computer science curricula, Exploring Computer Science and CS Principles also offer approaches and resources, but are more computer science centric. The point is that there are resources available and many smart people who think this is a valuable approach.

But, to make this really clear, I think it's best to present an activity, and contrast a more traditional approach with a CT approach.

Activity: Review solving linear equations

Traditional approach: Model solving a few. Perhaps have students justify the steps to underline the idea of equality. Then have them practice – either alone or in groups. You could mix it up and play the mistake game if you're feeling different, or play a row game.

CT approach: Write a linear equation on the board with one unknown. Have students tell you how to solve it, step-by-step, but be an absolute pain in the ass. Do only exactly what they say. Make them justify their steps. Ask if you're done after every step. Do a couple of problems like this.

Why? You're going to focus on solving linear equations as an algorithm. Ask the students to write an algorithm to solve any given linear equation. Explain what you mean by an algorithm – a very precise step-by-step set of instructions that a trained monkey could use to solve an equation.


With this example, I'm guilty of something I find incredibly annoying - using the easy examples from algebra to demonstrate a different approach to teaching math. Sorry. However, I do plan on focusing largely on geometry this coming fall, which I anticipate to be one of the more difficult courses to switch to a computational thinking approach.

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