Teaching — and learning — computational thinking is the key to preparing Singaporeans for the digital century.
By Prof Looi Chee Kit
In recent years, many educators have advocated the importance of teaching computational thinking (CT) and its related concepts such as coding and algorithmic thinking.
Some consider CT skills to be as fundamental as numeracy and literacy in the 21st century.
Many countries, including Australia, Finland and UK, have integrated CT or coding into their compulsory education.
In Singapore, various schools have offered programmes, courses or co-curricular activities that introduce students to coding, stimulate their interests in computing-related pursuits, or incorporate coding into applied learning programmes.
Despite the high level of interest in CT education, the public might not be clear about what CT really is and why it should be pursued.
What is Computational Thinking?
CT has been a hallmark of computer science from as early as the 1950s. In the early 1970s, MIT professor Seymour Papert introduced children to CT through Logo, an educational programming language.
But it was not until 2006 that the surge of interest in CT began under the leadership of Jeannette Wing, a professor of computer science currently at Carnegie Mellon University. She defined CT as “solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behavior by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science”.
Distilled down to its most fundamental elements, CT comprises four parts: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithmic thinking. With these four skills, one can specify the solution to a problem, which can then be executed by a computer or a human following instructions.
CT has been so widely used in other fields such as science, mathematics and even social science that it no longer describes something unique to the computing field.
Why CT is important in education
CT builds up our students’ thinking and ability to solve problems.
Recently, my research group interviewed some students taking O-Level computing to find out if they were able to apply what they learnt in computing to real-life issues. Some of the responses we received are:
- “Through computing, I know that a big problem can be broken down to small ones to conquer. Almost every day I use this.”
- “I have learned to take a step back, look at the big picture, and analyse it before tackling the big problem.”
- “Computing teaches me that every little thing matters. Sometimes, a small mistake can lead to a big problem.”
When students practise breaking down a problem into smaller parts, planning the sequence of steps, recognising patterns, evaluating solutions and focusing on the important details in their computing lessons, they are actually equipping themselves with problem-solving skills that will help them enhance their learning of mathematics, science and other subjects, and even to solve problems in daily life.
While learning CT, students have the opportunities to develop creativity as they actively engage in designing and making projects based on their ideas and using their knowledge of coding and making. They can gain confidence in their ability to solve problems and create something from their ideas with coding or other tools.
CT can be introduced to even children of pre-school age. From a very young age, kids can be exposed to computing concepts through kinaesthetic activities or playing with specially designed toys and robots individually or with their peers, under the guidance of teachers and parents. The opportunity to learn CT at a young age can help them develop a more logical mindset and communicate their thoughts in a more structured manner. What we need is age-appropriate tools, toys and gadgets together with pedagogies to introduce CT to children at different ages.
Becoming future-ready digital citizens
CT is not only educationally meaningful for children or students but a life skill for citizens living in an age of technology and automation. Singapore’s Smart Nation vision aims to “harness technology to the fullest with the aim of improving the lives of citizens, creating more opportunities, and building stronger communities”.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative, describes the vision’s ideal as “one where citizens are active co-creators and problem-solvers, rather than passively waiting on the Government to solve every real-life problem”. The imminent reality of this vision is that jobs in our nation will depend more and more on technology and its related skills.
The workforce of tomorrow has to work productively to apply as well as create technology. In this context, CT is a necessity and not just a matter of pursuing one’s personal interests.
To develop CT capabilities and support the Smart Nation initiative, several programmes have been implemented to introduce and develop CT skills and coding capabilities in every Singaporean, from pre-school children to adults. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) launched the PlayMaker programme for pre-school and kindergarten children. Through this programme, teachers can use selected technology-enabled toys like Bee-Bot and KIBO to develop CT skills, such as problem-solving and algorithmic thinking, through play.
Code for Fun (CFF) Enrichment Programme (jointly held by IMDA and the Ministry of Education) is offered to all primary and secondary schools to increase students’ exposure to coding and CT. The programme includes learning related concepts using a programming language like Scratch and combining it with robotic kits such as Lego WeDo and MoWay, and microcontrollers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, to create an engaging coding experience for students.
Secondary schools may offer students opportunities to learn coding and develop CT skills through CFF, and Digital Maker and Applied Learning Programmes. Students are introduced to micro:bit boards and they learn how computing can be applied to solve problems in different authentic contexts. From 2017, secondary school students can also choose to learn syntax-programming under the CFF programme.
Co-curricular activities such as info-comm clubs in primary and secondary schools also offer students opportunities to learn and apply computational skills. In the formal school curriculum in Singapore, computing is offered as a subject in O-level (secondary school), and there is computer science in A-level (junior college). Through these programmes, the nation hopes to nurture a generation of digitally savvy citizens, who can make a real impact for a better Singapore.
Overcoming challenges, preparing for the future
One challenge in promoting CT is the issue of building a coherent and effective computing education ecosystem in Singapore.
Different stakeholders such as schools, teachers, parents, MOE, IMDA, universities, education trainers, non-profit organisations and commercial companies should evolve in their relationships and interactions with one another to sustain good and continuous learning pathways for learners, as well as training and support for teachers.
For example, students who complete a CT or coding course at one level may develop some interests and want to continue their computing education at the next level, but there may not be such opportunities provided as yet.
We need joint efforts among schools, MOE, IMDA, NIE, tertiary institutions and even industry to support and sustain students’ interests and knowledge in CT.
While building a coherent and effective computing education ecosystem in Singapore is our long-term goal, what is urgent now for every education stakeholder is to start the learning journey — be it in big or small ways — to prepare Singaporeans for the opportunities in the digital century.
Prof Looi is Head of the Learning Sciences Lab, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University — the first research centre dedicated to the study of the sciences of learning in Asia Pacific. His research on seamless and mobile learning has been instrumental in creating a model of 1:1 computing.