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Decomposing Computational Thinking within Social Studies

Introduction:

The classic definition of computational thinking was created in 2006 by computer scientist Jeanette Wing. According to Wing, computational thinking (CT) involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior, by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science (Wing, 2006). CT isn’t just for computer scientists, but a fundamental skill for everyone. It is a way humans solve problems and it is not trying to get humans to think like computers (Wing, 2006). We all practice CT in some capacity even without computers. Packing your bag with things you need for your trip or retracing your steps to find an item you lost are problem-solving strategies relative to computational thinking. Wing’s hope is that CT competencies become more widely recognized and spread to other disciplines (Wing, 2006).  

In 2012 , ISTE and Computer Science Teachers Association developed an operational definition of CT to help K-12 teachers introduce it in their classrooms. The timing of generating these standards is consistent with growing employment opportunities in the United States. According to the National Science Foundation, more than 600,000 high-paying technology jobs are open across the US, and as of 2018 more than 51% of all STEM jobs will be in computer science-related fields (Lindstrom et al., 2019). Therefore, teaching CT as a critical problem-solving process will better equip our students to be prepared for the job market that they will be entering. Not all our students will enter a computer-science related field, but CT is universally important in solving and understanding complex problems. 

ISTE recognizes that bringing CT to K-12 classrooms faces challenges of introducing it to the curriculum to getting teachers fully onboard. Many teachers don’t yet know what computational thinking is and get hung up on the definition (Fingal, 2018). I can recall the day I attended an ISTE training put on by our district and thinking how irrelevant CT was for social studies. I didn’t realize at the time that I had been teaching facets of CT, but I didn’t have the knowledge and understanding to communicate these processes to students. 

Fast forward to my role as a digital education coach, I wish to help educators understand that they are already engaging their students in CT, find new ways to integrate CT into their existing curriculum, and foster a better understanding of the characteristics of CT so that it is explicit for our students and to empower them transferring these processes to other problems. More specifically, I want to investigate how CT is integrated into social studies to better support some of the teachers I work with. 

My question – What is computational thinking and how can it be integrated into social studies?

ISTE 5 Computational Thinker –  Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.

Solution:

Computational thinking forms links between computing and the real world including a set of problem-solving processes that builds on the power and limits of computing. The focus is on thinking skills or processes and the four most commonly cited of CT are decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithmic thinking. Many social studies educators may realize that they are already fostering these thinking skills in their curriculum and with their students. The following includes a breakdown of CT thinking skills as well as examples of how they could be integrated into social studies curriculum:

Decomposition is the breaking down complex problems into smaller parts or tasks. Decomposition is great for breaking down essential questions or historical topics/processes to better analyze and understand. Students can break problems down into smaller tasks to work at one at a time to limit the chance of being overwhelmed (Güven & Gulbahar, 2020). This is a common skill in social studies as historical events and periods are broken down into parts such as causes and effects or varying perspectives. For example, while investigating The Great Depression, students could look into the main causes for the stock market crash and how the results affected the country, its economics, and people. They could then analyze the different parts to infer why the period is known as “the Great Depression” (Güven & Gulbahar, 2020). Similarly, there is a common social media trend where large topics are broken down into simpler and more easily digestible parts. These posts often begin with: “so you want to talk about _____”. This is a great example of decomposition that can be engaging for students to leverage digital tools to communicate complex information in a way that is appropriate for a target audience. It is common for educators as the drivers of this thinking often categorizing or breaking up topics for students. Instead, educators should consider empowering students to participate and collaborate in this process as much as it is appropriate.

Pattern recognition concentrates on finding similarities and differences in systems that can also be used to make predictions. Like decomposition, pattern recognition is common and easily integrated into social studies curriculum. We can study history, for example, to identify patterns to make better decisions in the future. Investigating change over time or compare/contrast already lends itself to pattern recognition that can then be used to make predictions or arrive at conclusions. For example, students can investigate maps of settlements or population distribution, investigate the rise and fall of civilizations, or examine primary source data to study patterns of voting rights in a nation (Hammond et al., 2019). 

Abstraction can be described as reducing detail to make a problem or analysis more understandable. Another way to think about CT abstraction is the filtering information to glean the most relevant information. In other words, can I remove details to make it easier to see patterns or connections? For example, students discern the most important details shared in articles they research to write informatively about the subject. In civics, abstraction can be used to filter data to be analyzed then generate conclusions. Build in time for students to continually ask questions as this will help them consider new ways to analyze data and patterns. 

Algorithmic thinking/design is developing processes through logical, precise, and repeatable steps (Güven & Gulbahar, 2020). It would be helpful to preface this CT with some basic knowledge of coding including vocabulary like sequence, selection, and repetition, but it isn’t critical. Students can develop their own algorithms to teach processes. Students could be empowered to research and create algorithms for how a bill becomes a law or the process of gentrification. Generally, students may use algorithmic thinking to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes developments, and turning points throughout history (Güven & Gulbahar, 2020). Simulation games like Mincraft or the oregon trail really exemplify this particular CT skill when the user is creating or playing through a narrative.  

Conclusion

To be clear, computer science is an academic discipline involving the study of computation and application using computers while CT is a way we go about tackling problems using big picture processes (2016). CT helps increase student confidence with ambiguous, complex, or open-ended problems. Many social studies educators are naturally teaching CT though it may not be explicit. There is crossover between common historical thinking skills and CT. It is then critical to teach students the vocabulary associated with CT to support a deeper understanding of the thinking skills as well as increase ability in transferring those skills to other problems. In addition, providing space for students to choose, evaluate, and discuss their CT process can support higher level critical thinking. Encourage students to generate questions. Questions ignite the thinking process and also redirect the thinking process. Students may start with a driving question that evolves into other questions that affords a much deeper learning experience. New questions also may determine different ways to manipulate data or look for alternative patterns.

References

Fingal, J. (2018, November 27). Teaching computational thinking more important than defining it. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/explore/Computational-Thinking/Teaching-computational-thinking-more-important-than-defining-it.   

Güven, I., & Gulbahar, Y. (2020). Integrating Computational Thinking into Social Studies. The Social Studies, 111(5), 234–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2020.1749017  

Hammond, T. C., Oltman, J., & Salter, S. (2019). Using Computational Thinking to Explore the Past, Present, and future. Social Education, 83(2), 118–122. https://www.socialstudies.org/social-education/83/2/using-computational-thinking-explore-past-present-and-future#:~:text=Using%20Computational%20Thinking%20to%20Explore%20the%20Past%2C%20Present%2C%20and%20Future,-Social%20Education&text=The%20incorporation%20of%20elements%20of,for%20analyzing%20discipline%2Dspecific%20data 

Lindstrom, D. L., Schmidt-Crawford, D. A., & Thompson, A. D. (2019). Computational Thinking in Content Areas and Feminine Craft. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 35(3), 126–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/21532974.2019.1622917  

What is computational thinking? (2016). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJKzkVZcozc&feature=youtu.be

Wing, J. M. (2006). Computational Thinking. Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 33–35. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/usr/wing/www/publications/Wing06.pdf

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Knowledge Constructor Most Recent Post

The Process of Knowledge Construction

Introduction 

Information literacy is the ability to identify, locate, evaluate, and use information effectively (Information Literacy, 2017). A now necessary skill because of how abundant and accessible information is. If we, as educators, are to address the rampant spread of misinformation, then we must support students’ development of information literacy. To avoid being duped, students must develop skillful research habits, but the landscape of research has changed over the last few decades. 

In 2012, Pew Research Center conducted a survey focusing on how teens do research. Pew concluded that the internet has changed the meaning of research (Purcell et al., 2020). Today’s digital environment has had a significant impact on student research habits. Both teachers and students reported that research equals “Googling”. The process has shifted. What was once a “relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery” is now a “fast-paced, short term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment” (Purcell et al., 2020). That isn’t to say there isn’t any value in locating information quickly, but without a focus on an information problem-solving process, students will struggle to develop the crucial skills and habits to successfully construct meaning for themselves and others. 

The general perception is that the internet and digital technologies have a “mostly positive” impact on students’ research habits. Although, teachers are still concerned about students’ expectations and use of “instant information”(Purcell et al., 2020). Deficits include using multiple sources effectively to support an argument, recognize bias, and the inability to judge the quality of information. The latter being a skill the majority of teachers in the Pew survey deemed “essential” for their students’ future success (Purcell et al., 2020).

So how can we support our students with the habits and skills to be successfully curious and combat the side effects of instant information? How can we empower students to be knowledge constructors who actively explore real-world issues to develop ideas and pursue answers? To address these large questions, I contend that an educator’s energy should be invested towards information skills instruction that focuses on the process and is supported by cooperative learning structures. 

ISTE 3 – Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.

My Question – “How does an inquiry process model support critical information literacy skills? How can this process be supported by culturally responsive, cooperative learning structures?”

Solution

One process that could be used to teach information literacy and support inquiry is the Big6 and Super3. The Big6 is a student-centered research process that can help anyone solve problems or make decisions by using information. The process can be applied across subject areas and age levels. The goal is to teach the process, to have it be habitual, so that students can become systematic problem solvers who successfully curate, evaluate, and synthesize information.   Included in its name, the Big6 has 6 distinct stages that align to the ISTE Knowledge Constructor standards:

  • Task Definition – this first part involves the ability to recognize that information is needed, to define a problem, and to identify the types and amount of information needed. Some framing questions include: what is my current task?; what are some topics or questions I need to answer?; what information will I need? Here, a digital KWL thinking process may be helpful (Borrero Blog). Students could leverage digital communication tools to consult with experts locally or globally. Additionally, The Question Formulation Technique, created by the Right Question Institute, is a research-backed process to help students generate questions that could be used as a strategy to create questions based on a problem or another stimuli (What is the QFT?, 2020) .
  • Information Seeking Strategies – once an information problem has been identified, students brainstorm to consider all possible information sources and develop a plan to find the sources. This step is crucial in addressing some of the issues caused by “instant information” gathering as mentioned earlier. Some framing questions include: what are all the possible sources to check?; what are the best sources of information for this task? Students should explicitly evaluate pros/cons of each source and assess for relevance. There are plenty of mnemonic devices available to scaffold this, and the Big6 website offers CAARS and CLAAASS. Collaborating with your school’s librarian is also essential in identifying what source libraries are available to your students that don’t cost money. Lastly, allow students to plan a reasonable timeline for the information problem-solving tasks.
  • Location and Access – After students determine their priorities for sources, then they must locate and access those sources. Access is key and teachers should help students understand what credentials they need and where they can access the sources (at home, at school, or both). Some framing questions include: where can I find these sources? Where can I find the information in the source? Another critical step here is to support students with understanding how to effectively use appropriate search terms when they access online databases. Teachers in the Pew survey rated only 24% of students above average or excellent in this skill. Using the Four NETS for Better Searching website can be used to support this skill. We can also leverage digital tools to help students collect and organize information. Digital tools like Zotero and Wakelet are just a few of many examples. 
  • Use of Information – Students then engage with their information to extract relevant information. Some framing questions include: what information do I expect to find in this source?; what information from the source is useful? We can continue to use digital tools like Zotero and Wakelet to support this work. Another idea would be to create a Form template that students can copy and fill in to generate an excel sheet of their research. Sites like citationmachine or easybib can also be used to build references data based and then copied to a document. I can recall from my experience that this step would often happen at the end of the research process with my students. Too often would sources get lost or forgotten, so focus on building a habit of this as you go. 
  • Synthesis – learners organize information from their multiple sources in a way to construct knowledge, make meaning, and present. Framing questions include: how will I organize my information?; how should I present my information? It is valuable to make this thinking visible. Synthesizing thinking routines from ProjectZero’s toolkit can help scaffold the cognitive process. Digital whiteboards and sticky notes can help make that thinking visible. Not specifically called out, but this would be the appropriate stage for students to then use digital tools to present their understandings and arguments. Student agency can be increased by allowing for learners to self-select their medium/tool they want to construct their information with.
  • Evaluation – the final stage focuses on how well the final product meets the original task. This is a judgement phase examining not only the product(effectiveness), but more importantly the process(efficiency). Framing questions include: did I do what was required?; did I complete each of the Big6 stages efficiently? It is important to allow students the opportunity for self-assessment here. 

(Eisenberg et al., 2017)

thebig6.org

The Big6 is applicable for all age levels, but there is also the Super3 that condenses the Big6 into 3 major steps written for the youngest age groups.

thebig6.org

At first glance of the Big6 website and overview materials, the process suggests that it is mostly an individual undertaking by the student who receives feedback from the instructor. This isn’t true, but cooperative learning is an integral component to inquiry. We can then look at the tenants of the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework and fold that into the Big 6 process. Also referred to as the Practical Inquiry process, there are 3 overlapping presences that support inquiry and critical thinking especially in remote/distance learning. The authors of COI define it as “a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding” (Bektashi, 2018). In addition, COI describes how learning occurs at the intersection of social, cognitive and teaching presence (Bektashi, 2018). I would recommend K-12 teachers consider the characteristics of these presences and how they fit into a more appropriate age-level, and student friendly, framework.

  1. Teacher Presence – design inquiry opportunities and organize classroom learning communities, facilitate discourse, and direct instruction.
  2. Social Presence – the ability for students identify with the community, communicate purposefully, and develop interpersonal relationships 
  3. Cognitive Presence – the way in which students construct and confirm meaning through activities, reflection, and discourse.

The social presence is the collective learning space that is indispensable to include in the inquiry process. A learner’s construction of knowledge and support is thoroughly elevated when an individual is able to comfortably engage in social and communal collaboration. Fostering successful social presences builds classroom community, provides beneficial peer-peer technology support (a time consuming and difficult challenge for teaching online), presents healthy discourse and multiple perspectives, and better supports critical thinking and cognitive development. This is especially helpful in the remote learning environment to support the social and emotional well-being of students who often feel isolated and depressed (Curtis, 2020). What might the social presences explicitly look like in the Big6? At each stage students would be moving “iteratively between private and shared words… between critical reflection and discourse” (Garrison et al., 2004).  In other words, one should plan to allow for a opportunity in small professional learning communities (PLCs) with peers to: set goals, share, discuss, provide feedback, and connect their learning. 

Conclusion

Much of my attention as a digital learning specialist is concentrated on coaching work with teachers to address instructional challenges. I support teachers in implementing strategies to address instructional challenges, but every classroom is different, and my role is then to help teachers adapt those strategies that fit their environment while choosing the right digital tools that are supported. Teachers can then create their own inquiry model to fit their classroom context and still preserve the necessary components of the Big6, Super3, and/or COI framework. A great example of this is the Quest model, created by Dr. David Wicks, that is better aligned to the Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership program (Wicks, 2018).  While an inquiry model is helpful to teach the process and skills of ISTE Knowledge Constructor, equally important is fostering a social presence in your model. Furthermore, educators should continuously assess and teach the necessary research skills to help students be successful at each stage of the inquiry process. These lessons should be folded into the timeline allotted for your inquiry assignment. Jennifer Gonzalez, Digital Educator and author of the Cult of Pedagogy, offers an example of this as a curation lesson (Gonzalez, 2017). Finally, in order for students to grow in their research skills, the inquiry framework must be a continuous routine in your classroom year round. Practice can then transform to permanence. 

References

Bektashi, L. (2018, July 9). Community of Inquiry Framework in Online Learning: Use of Technology. Go to the cover page of Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018. https://techandcurriculum.pressbooks.com/chapter/coi-and-online-learning/.  

Curtis, C. (2020, October 13). Isolated Students May Struggle to Stay Mentally Healthy. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/isolated-students-may-struggle-stay-mentally-healthy.  

Eisenberg, M., Johnson, D., & Berkowitz, B. (2017). Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) Skills Curriculum Based on the Big6 Skills Approach to Information Problem-Solving. Library Media Connection, 24–27. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59a303936a49631dd51f9a7d/t/5b92e343b8a045c01cc38a21/1536353091802/LMC_Big6-ICT_Curriculum_LMC_MayJune2010.pdf.  

Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2004, May 4). Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence, and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education. http://cde.athabascau.ca/coi_site/documents/Garrison_Anderson_Archer_CogPres_Final.pdf.  

Gonzalez, J. (2020, June 13). To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation. Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/curation/. 

Information literacy. (2017, August 7). Common Sense. https://www.commonsense.org/education/digital-citizenship/information-literacy.  

Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, L., Jacklin, A., Chen, C., & Zickuhr, K. (2020, May 30). How Teens Do Research in the Digital World. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2012/11/01/how-teens-do-research-in-the-digital-world/.  

What is the QFT? Right Question Institute. (2020, June 26). https://rightquestion.org/what-is-the-qft/.  

Wicks, D. (2018, May 21). The QUEST model for inquiry-based learning. David Wicks: Digital Education. https://davidwicks.org/iste-2-design-and-develop-digital-age-learning-experiences-and-assessments/quest-model-for-inquiry-based-learning/