Do we need to think computationally to understand the world around us?

Many schools and parents see the importance of teaching computational thinking, especially in an increasingly digital world. However, it goes beyond learning mathematics or creating sequences of algorithms; for many professors and researchers, it is about creating the problem solvers and innovators of the future.

Jeannette Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University, who coined the term "computational thinking" (CT) in 2011, insists on computational thinking describing a new way of reasoning rather than just the ability to program.

We often use a computer to solve a problem, but prior to that, we need to understand the problem and implement solutions to solve it, and this is where computational thinking comes in. It is based on 4 key elements: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm. First, CT allows us to decompose a complex problem into a series of smaller, more comprehensible issues. Then, this series will be analysed individually and related to the problems that have already been solved. Finally, it allows to highlight the essential elements and, after that, set up rules to solve each problem.

The UK has been in the vanguard, being one of the first countries in Europe to mandate computational thinking and programming in schools in 2014. The same year the European Schoolnet's report Computing our Future identified computational thinking as a concept that has started to gain importance. In 2016, the JRC Study Developing Computational Thinking in Compulsory Education described computational thinking as a promising concept. The recently published JRC study Reviewing Computational Thinking in Compulsory Education confirms that computational thinking is more than the promising new trend it was back in 2016. Both JRC studies were carried out by the Educational Technology of the Italian National Research Council, together with European Schoolnet and Vilnius University for the 2022 study. Out of the 29 analysed European countries, 17 countries already have introduced basic computer science concepts as compulsory for study in both primary and lower secondary schools (Austria, Greece, Finland, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Slovakia, Switzerland, and the UK).

The 2022 JRC study highlights that computer science curricula at the lower secondary level focus on problem-solving and logical thinking skills. As the study also states, these lend themselves to pedagogical approaches that promote student autonomy, such as personalised, project-based, game-based and collaborative learning. Such active pedagogical approaches have been promoted by European Schoolnet through projects like TeachUP and Co-Lab. The 2018 European Schoolnet perspective paper summarises relevant research on collaborative learning. This approach has been particularly appreciated by teachers and students interviewed for the 2022 JRC report.

The JRC report highlights that if we want to enable students to become active citizens of a digital society, they need problem-solving and other skills that go beyond simple digital user skills. More complex computer science elements like machine learning and artificial intelligence are likely to become a focus in the final years of compulsory education. The 2021 European Schoolnet's report Artificial Intelligence Role in K12 Education provides insights into artificial intelligence as an emerging trend in school education.

The 2022 JRC report identifies teacher training as one of the biggest challenges for the successful integration of computer science curricula. Computer science concepts and underpinning computational thinking skills enter schools as part of entirely new subjects or existing subjects that are taught in more grades and become increasingly compulsory. They also become part of other subjects such as mathematics, natural sciences, and arts. This development, in turn, means that a lot of teachers are faced with teaching complex topics they did not learn about as part of their initial education. Ministries of Education, together with a variety of other players, offer trainings in different formats.

The European Schoolnet Academy, in collaboration with Google, offers the free course Computer Science: Educators' Guide for any teacher interested in the topic starting on 25 April 2022. The European Schoolnet Academy offers teachers and parents a hands-on opportunity to experience different methods and tools for integrating computer science, coding and educational activities involving programming with young people. The course also serves as an incentive to promote career opportunities in the field of computer science. The MOOC focuses on fostering students' problem-solving skills and artificial intelligence, which is much in line with the findings from the latest JRC report.

In the last few years, the teaching of computer science concepts and underpinning computational thinking skills has become an integral part of school curricula at an impressive scale and speed. However, the question if we really need to think computationally to understand the world around us has not been answered. In order to make computer science an established subject in education, more evidence is needed to confirm that its implementation in curricula actually reaches identified goals and contributes to fostering general problem-solving skills.

However, it is worth mentioning that this discipline encompasses many areas and qualities in its learning spectrum: social, creative, emotional, and critical thinking skills. In a world where digitisation has become the norm and the main means of communication, it is essential to ensure that everyone has access to computing skills and can fully flourish in our society. Therefore, European Schoolnet and all its stakeholders are committed to providing educational materials that are in line with the digital transformation of our education system. This spring, the European Schoolnet research team will publish a Perspectives paper on how to integrate computational thinking into a computing subject based on three case studies.