Cultivating Computational Thinking in Grade School Learners

Knology’s evaluation of The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis validates the value of the game as a tool for teaching computational thinking in classrooms, suggests possible benefits of game play for students with different learning needs.

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJoanna Laursen BruckerJohn VoiklisUduak Grace ThomasJohn FraserChristina Shane-SimpsonShaun Field
Feb 13, 2020

With funding from the National Science Foundation, EdGE at TERC (EdGE) launched an implementation research study in 2015 to understand the educational impact of a wide-scale re-release of its award-winning game: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (hereafter Zoombinis). The impetus for the study was increased attention to cultivating and developing Computational Thinking (CT) skills as part of K-12 curricula across the United States, as well as educators’ growing interest in using games in the classroom. Computational thinking is a problem-solving methodology that focuses on developing strategies that can be reused across problems and contexts (Shute et al. 2017).

With the recent re-release of Zoombinis, which extended the game from computers to tablets, EdGE saw an opportunity to contribute to the body of knowledge in cognitive and learning sciences. Specifically, the investigators sought to understand how student learners build implicit knowledge of CT skills, demonstrated through use while playing Zoombinis, and how educators – teachers, parents, informal educators, and others – can leverage that game-based learning to improve explicit learning of CT. EdGE also sought to explore ways that Zoombinis could support equitable improvement in classroom learning.

As the evaluation partner for this research study, Knology (formerly New Knowledge Organization Ltd.) was tasked with assessing Zoombinis implementation needs among educators and students, and the effectiveness of bridge materials developed for teachers using the game in their classrooms. Knology also examined game-based measures of teacher-assessed and implicit CT skills and classroom performance to assess whether CT learning minimizes differences between students with different educational needs.

Results from the implementation research study activities validate the value of Zoombinis as a tool for teaching computational thinking in classrooms. Teachers who implemented the game said that the game has helped broaden student participation in classrooms. They report that some students who once struggled with learning through other means were able to grasp the concepts that the Zoombinis puzzles teach. Finally, teachers also said that the game brought out leadership skills in students who were not usually class leaders.

Much has changed since the Zoombinis study began four years ago. Most of the challenges that teachers initially saw with bringing Zoombinis into the classroom – cost, insufficient access to technology and computers, for example – are no longer significant barriers for most of the schools in the study. Students also have far more access to personal computers, tablets, and other devices at school than they did when the study first launched in 2015.

Furthermore, the definition of CT has also solidified in the intervening years through the efforts of groups such as the International Society for Technology in Education. With that change has come an evolution in some of the terminology used to talk about CT skills. Shifts in technology have helped clarify the importance of cultivating CT skills in students. For the current generation, who is growing up in an age where technological developments move at a rapid clip, these skills are only going to gain in importance. Not only is teaching children to think in this way important, it is also crucial to understand the best ways to support the different kinds of learners that are present in school classrooms and other learning environments.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from this study emerged from analysis of the teacher logs and focus groups. Teachers who participated in the implementation study said they would use Zoombinis as a teaching tool in their classrooms in the foreseeable future. More importantly, these data revealed that Zoombinis provides a wide array of access points that can effectively support different kinds of learners. Based on those initial suggestions from teachers, this evaluation includes details from some early research that explores the extent to which CT learning may equalize the performance of students with and without Individualized Education Plans.

Together, these results suggest that further examination of this game-based experience might 1) benefit students with different learning needs and 2) help create teacher tools for more intentional support of those learners, as well as 3) develop extensions to the game that specifically support diverse types of learning needs. Future studies could, for example, examine in greater depth whether game play can bridge learning gaps between different types of learners in the same class, or possibly create opportunities for collaborative learning between learners with varying strengths.

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