Unlocking computational thinking

A black box with four locks and five puzzles that provided the keys to open the locks led about 100 middle school teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on a journey to unlock students' computational-thinking skills.

The challenge was part of a one-day course for the teachers called Ignite My Future. Sponsored through a district partnership with Discovery Education and Tata Consultancy Services, the program was given on Aug. 1 at Northeast Middle and Aug. 2 at Northridge Middle.

Presenter Michael Gorman, a former teacher from Indiana now with Discovery Education, gave the teachers a concise definition of computational thinking in his presentation before the puzzles began.

"Computational thinking equals thinking for yourself," Gorman said. Instead of students memorizing information, they need to engage intellectually to understand not only what they are learning but why and how. Harnessing that process through a series of deliberate steps was the recurrent theme of the day.

Getting students to think – to learn to think computationally – may be the most important part of education in the 21st century, said Balaji Ganapathy of Tata Consultancy Services, a worldwide consulting company that co-sponsored the event. In today's world, he said, those skills are more important than they've ever been – and teachers need to do a better job of imparting them to students so they can succeed in a future that none of us can see.

"Sixty-five percent of today's students will work in jobs that don't exist yet," Ganapathy said. "Computational thinking is critical, no matter what career they choose."

8.7.18.Northridge Middle School - Group Select TCS, DE, Rep.jpgPresenters told teachers that computational thinking – when students are thinking for themselves – can happen in any subject, whether it's math, language arts or science.

But it's not always easy to think through a problem, as was made clear during "Caught in the Code," an exercise done by all participants.

"Some of these puzzles will be tough," Discovery Education presenter Sherry Crofut warned the dozen teachers gathered in her breakout session the morning of Aug. 1. "I want you to think of how your students are frustrated."

Crofut was right. The puzzles were challenging. So was the 40-minute time limit to solve them all. Eighth-grade teacher Stephen Casey, seventh-grade teacher Sydney Thompson and health teacher Dana Rochelle huddled together with a set of directions – "Move left," "Move right" and a maze-like puzzle to arrange the directions so they could get from start to end.

They arranged the directions in the right order but didn't have anything that would open one of the locks. They looked at the puzzle again. One of them picked up a small flashlight that was on the table and ran the beam idly over the maze and the directional clues. Eureka! The black-light flashlight revealed hidden arrows on the directions – arrows that were the key to opening a directional lock on the box. One puzzle down, four to go.

"You can do this with any subject – use a set of clues that are going to lead them to computational thinking," Crofut told the teachers.

The Northridge teachers had an additional speaker – Rep. Alma Adams, the former teacher who represents the 12th Congressional District. Wearing one of the rakish hats that are her stylistic signature, she leaned into her audience as if it were students in a classroom.

"Are you ready for school?" she quizzed the audience. "Your work here is really important. Fifty years from now it won't matter what kind of home you had, how much money you made, how many hats Alma Adams had. What will matter is that each of you is important in the life of a child. Continue to be proud of the difference you are making."

Participants said that they gained new ways to make that difference by using computational thinking in the classroom.

"It's a tool to help me understand students better," said Gerrod Rivers, who will begin his third year of teaching math at Northridge Middle.

"It's like a gallery walk – you have to think," said Sonja Moates, another Northridge math teacher. That's the challenge the teachers will take back to their students when school starts: "You have to think."

Middle school students are especially ready to receive that challenge, said one teacher.

"They're just at that place where they are learning what they can be," said Aeronia Poole, who will teach technology in the new CTE magnet at Northeast Middle this year.