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Computational Thinking in Basic Education

Researcher develops activities on paper for the teaching of computer concepts
Computational Thinking in Basic Education

Activities use characters from Turma da Mônica to work computational thinking with children - Photo: disclosure

The first personal computers with available prices appeared in the market less than 40 years ago. The IBM PC 5150 with Windows operating system was released in 1981; it was a big seller and popularized the computer as a tool for work and leisure. Since then, the evolution of these technologies had a permanent impact on our society. Today it is hard to find any profession or work which does not use computers for their activities; making the contact with this technology inevitable. Computer skills are no longer an option; it is a necessity for inclusion into the job market.

Christian Brackmann’s, professor at the Instituto Federal Farroupilha (IFFar), doctoral thesis is about the development of Computational Thinking. Through reflection of the current conditions of society, the unplugged activities were developed in basic education. The thesis was presented at UFRGS Postgraduate Program in Informatics in Education (PPGIE) of the Interdisciplinary Center of New Technologies in Education (Cinted). "Nowadays, all professions require people to know how to relate to machines," he says. The objective of the project was to bring computing concepts to basic school students and qualify them for the future. Through paper activities, children can develop logical reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Brackmann explains that computational thinking "is a creative, critical, and strategic ability to use the fundamentals of computing in several areas of knowledge to solve problems in an individual or collaborative way." The activities and lessons proposed by Brackmann taught the children to create steps to solve problems. These steps could be replicated by both people and machines. These teaching unplugged method that teaches computing without computers has already been known for a while. However, it was not much publicized in Brazil, although it is a viable alternative to economic problems and lack of resources in schools.

Computational thinking is based on four pillars that guide the problem-solving process. The first pillar is decomposition. It is characterized by the breaking of a complex problem into smaller and simpler parts to solve, increasing attention to detail. The second is the pattern recognition. It is characterized by the identification of similarities in different processes to solve them more efficiently and rapidly. The same solution found in the first time can be replicated in other situations and make the job easier. The third is abstraction.  It is the process of analyzing the relevant elements and those which can be ignored. So you can focus on what is really important. The last pillar is the algorithms and includes all the previous pillars. It is the process of creating a set of rules for solving the problem.

Brackmann says that there are many benefits in developing computational thinking. Preparing children for the future and starting digital literacy helps them to organize the thought in harmony with existing or future technologies. It is a methodology for solving problems efficiently and strategically that can be used in a variety of cases. Brackmann explains that computational thinking is a skill that everyone should have, regardless of professional activity. The four pillars facilitate students’ learning process in an interdisciplinary manner. In addition to better capacitate them to the job market, it also helps them to understand a world full of technology and computing.

However, it is necessary to consider the socioeconomic conditions of the country's public schools and the difficulty that students have to access computers and other technologies. Thinking about this situation, a question arises: how to introduce computational thinking without these resources? The motivation for the project came when Brackmann realized the difficulty of some of his undergraduate students presented to learn programming. The algorithm classes he teaches have one of the highest failure rates in the curriculum of computer course. He believes that teaching basic concepts from the beginning of education will bring benefits to students. It will better prepare them not only for degree in computing, but also for any area which they decide to work.

Putting it into practice

With the four pillars used in problem solving, Brackmann created a series of paper activities that could be used to teach students the concepts of computing. In order to motivate children to participate and teach them in a playful way, he chose characters from Brazilian comic books Mônica’s Gang to illustrate the games. After exchanging emails with Maurício de Sousa Produções, authorization was granted to use the characters in his activities. In addition, it was his intention to take part of the Brazilian culture to Spain, where the project was also conducted. The translation of the names of the characters and the texts was done so that the Spanish children could understand the games. These texts were tested with a Spanish native speaker before being put into practice. Two projects were carried out to check the effectiveness of the dynamics before moving on to the next stage.

In order to implement the activities and analyze the results, groups of the fifth and sixth year were selected, divided into an experimental group and a control group. The final application of the project in Brazil was carry out in two public schools of Santa Maria, in Rio Grande do Sul state, with a total sample of 63 students, divided randomly between the two groups. The project in Spain was carried out into two different schools, with 72 participants.

First, children took a pre-test to assess their knowledge. Interventions occurred weekly, with a total of ten hours of lecture on unplugged computational thinking. The children would go through the same test done before, in order to compare the difference in the results after the lessons. Afterwards, classes were taught with Scratch programming language, with which they worked the concepts already exercised, but now using computers. The experimental group attended classes while the control group performed the tests only.

During classes, activities were used to present concepts of computation that would help in its resolution. These activities embraced different concepts, such as the breaking down of common problems and the attempt to find the right trajectory on a board between different parts. In addition, the interventions carried out in Brazil had two more exercises of an artistic nature  to distract the children who expected their turn to use the computers, since there were not enough machines for all of them. After the end of the process, the same classes were offered to the children of the control group so that they also had access to this knowledge. All activities created specifically for this research, as well as others developed later are available at the project website and can be used freely for educational purposes without any authorization.

After comparing the scores in both tests using arithmetic averages, Brackmann shows that the score difference between the pre and post test is significant. He explains that the improvement in the development of computational thinking was beyond expectation. Samples from both countries showed significant differences in their results. Brackmann says that children were more receptive in Spain than in Brazil, although he has always been welcome in the Brazilian setting. Additionally, the differences between socioeconomic conditions and children's profiles made it statistically unfeasible to perform a comparative test between them. However, the interventions proved their effectiveness and had the expected result in both cases.

Teaching computational thinking in Brazil and in the world

In comparison to Brazil, in countries such as England, Finland, the United States and Spain, computing is a subject already addressed in children's basic education, and schools have easier access to technology. In some private schools in Brazil, computational thinking is already applied, mainly through computer classes. However, as Brackmann reminds us, the reality of public schools is quite different. Private schools are well ahead in this matter, having more resources to offer their students access to computers. Recently, the teaching of computational thinking was included in the National Common Curricular Base in Brazil, which defines what to teach students in all schools in the country. For the researcher, it is important to introduce concepts into existing modules rather than creating a new one that focuses on computational thinking only. "It must come across in a transversal way, by working computer concepts in several modules," he says. For this to happen, it is important to train teachers and prepare them for this mode of teaching or hire computer licensed servers for this task.

During the development of the project, questions arose about the subject and on how to better introduce this methodology in the teaching of children: what is the ideal age to develop computational thinking?; for how long is the unplugged activity  effective,  and when is indispensable to use computers? For future projects, Brackmann intends to continue this research and answer to these questions. In addition, he is developing an extension for a project called "Computational Thinking for All," at the Instituto Federal Farroupilha for teacher´s training, as well as a research project to create new activities. Brackmann says he feels more motivated because he can see that teachers are satisfied with the methodology. But the problem and the deficiency are in the education system, not in access to information.

With regard to the importance of this change in Brazilian education, Brackmann states that computational thinking is not an option, it is a must. “If we do not do it, we will be left behind in the job market and world competition," he says. Even if the implementation of computational thinking is still an ongoing process, he believes that there is no turning back.



Title: Desenvolvimento do pensamento computacional através de atividades desplugadas na educação básica (Development of computational thinking through unplugged activities in basic education)

Author: Christian Puhlmann Brackmann

Project Advisor: Dante Augusto Couto Barone

Unit: Post-Graduate Program in Computer Science Education

Text in Portuguese available at:

First published: April 6, 2018 - By Nathália Cassola - Translated by Kelly Carrion

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