Getting started with computational thinking

Ask many teachers what computational thinking is and they’ll look at you with a blank face. I used to feel like that! But actually, I’ve come to realise it’s not that complicated at all.

[bctt tweet=”Computational thinking can be integrated easily into what you’re already doing #teachers” username=”donnagolightly1″]


Computational thinking is a computer science term that refers to a way of thinking which computer scientists use to ensure their programmes do what they need them to.

Seymour Papert was one of the first to use this term in 1980, but Jeanette Wing, a computer scientist herself, is often attributed with creating global attention around the term. In 2006 she suggested in an essay that thinking computationally was a fundamental skill for everyone, not just computer scientists. In 2016 she was  quoted as saying,

“I argued that the use of computational concepts, methods and tools would transform the very conduct of every discipline, profession and sector. Someone with the ability to use computation effectively would have an edge over someone without. So, I saw a great opportunity for the computer science community to teach future generations how computer scientists think. Hence “computational thinking.”

She saw it as more of a way of thinking rather than a siloed computer science concept. I think this succinctly sums up why we need to pay attention to computational thinking as a way of thinking in our classrooms.

If you want to read more about Jeanette Wings viewpoint you can read an article she wrote here.

So what does all this mean for teachers in schools today? Essentially it just means looking at what you’re already doing with a slightly different lens.

Computational thinking consists of four dimensions:

  • decomposition
  • abstraction
  • pattern recognition
  • algorithms

Decomposition is breaking down a complex problem or system into smaller parts, making it more manageable by seeing the different parts involved.

Abstraction is focusing on the important information only, ignoring irrelevant detail. (How many times have you done this with a maths problem?)

Pattern recognition is looking for similarities among and within problems.

Algorithms are a series of steps, in a sequential order, that if followed will solve the problem. (Does that sound like procedural writing?)

Already I can hear many of you thinking, “But I already do some of those things in my classroom.” And you do! Computational thinking is already occurring within your programmes – it’s just that maybe you haven’t recognised it as such and acknowledged it.

Used more purposefully computational thinking can encourage your students to become more effective problem solvers and innovators.

[bctt tweet=”Computational thinking encourages #problemsolving and #innovation” username=”donnagolightly1″]


Most countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have introduced a digital technologies component into their curriculum. This puts the focus for computational thinking on digital activities. Unlike humans, computers are incredible at doing boring, repetitive tasks with flawless efficiency and accuracy. But the only way they can do them is when somebody can specifically instruct them what to do and how to do it.

That process is called Computational Thinking algorithmic design, and an algorithm is nothing more than a set of instructions.

When used in cooking the algorithm is called a recipe. When used in mathematics it is called an equation. In a basketball game we call it a play or a move, and when we use it in computer science we call it coding.

All this understanding of computational thinking is great but how do we actually use it in our classrooms?

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Here are three ideas to get you started:


To begin with computational thinking doesn’t require any devices. These sort of activities are called ‘unplugged’ activities. They generally involve creating algorithms to direct human robots or characters around a grid.These can fit within any curriculum area.

CS Unplugged is a New Zealand based website that has some awesome activities to get you started. The Kidbots tab has some fun lesson plans that teach students about the necessity for clear, sequential instructions.

Barefoot Computing is an English website which also has some easy to use, helpful ideas. You need to create an account but it’s free to use and you’re able to filter to find unplugged ideas quickly and efficiently.

For more ideas on unplugged activities check out Karla’s slide deck here or my slide deck here.


Once your students have an idea about what an algorithm is and the importance of using instructions in the right order you may want to think about introducing them to digital coding sites.

Younger students (and many teachers) love Lightbot. You work through a series of activities that get more complicated as you work your way through the site. The idea is that you create an algorithm that allows the bot to move along a path and light up the end square. is another resource to use to begin your coding journey. It has unplugged activities as well as simple coding activities. It also allows your students to progress at their own rate.

Scratch Junior is a fantastic app for younger students although it’s only available on ipads or if you have Chromebooks that can access the Chrome Web Store you can use it from there also.The great thing with this app is that it allows you to tailor the content of what your students create to the learning that is happening in the classroom.

If you want more ideas of how to use Scratch Junior in your classroom, check out this slide deck here.


If your students are ready for more computational thinking you might like to introduce them to Scratch. It is truly one of the most comprehensive tools you could use in your classroom. Don’t be afraid to introduce it – even if you don’t know much about it. Your students will teach you as they go.

Scratch will allow your student to show their thinking in all areas of the curriculum – and it will develop all four areas of computational thinking.

There is a Scratch Curriculum that steps you through a progression of skills or there is CS First by Google, which is an awesome programme that provides lesson plans and solutions to a variety of sequential activities.

For more ideas about using Scratch in the classroom you could check out a UTB slide deck here.

Minecraft is a great way to develop computational thinking skills with your students. You do need an Office 0365 account, but if you’re a New Zealand school the Minecraft licences are free. It’s also free for most Australian schools.

If you’re not sure where to begin with it, or you’re new to MInecraft you could check out Lara’s course on getting started with it here.

Minecraft can be used for your students to show what they know in all areas of the curriculum. The education edition has extra features which allow the teacher greater control as well as the ability to see where all the students are within a world. Students can collaborate on projects together. They can also use the code feature to have their agent build items for them.

There are so many more resources that you can use to support computational thinking within your classroom. Don’t be afraid to begin thinking about how you can incorporate it into your class programme. It’s important that we provide our students with opportunities to develop their problem-solving skills and learn to be creators of digital technologies at the same time.

If you would like more ideas about how you could be supported in implementing computational thinking in your classroom, or within your school, feel free to contact us here.

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