Education in the Pandemic & the Potential for Computational Thinking

Education systems are in constant flux, but there are methodologies that can help students and teachers thrive

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJoanna Laursen BruckerKathryn NockRupu GuptaKate Flinner
Oct 5, 2020

Key Findings

As the pandemic marches on through the beginning of a new school year, the education landscape continues to shift to accommodate various learning modes. We interviewed 18 educators from across the United States to understand their perspectives on ongoing developments while schools experiment with remote learning, in-person learning, and hybrid learning models. Our study revealed what the “new normal” looks like and pointed to opportunities to invest in equity.

The new normal is marked by uncertainty about everything -- schedules, public health recommendations, effective teaching strategies, and the wellbeing of students and their families. In spite of this uncertainty and the variation in reopening plans from one school district to the next, educators share two core priorities: supporting students’ social-emotional skills and helping students become independent, active learners. At the same time, they are deeply concerned about the ethical trade-offs they are navigating, particularly when it comes to remote learning on computers. For instance, should they require visibility into students’ work process or give them privacy in case they are uncomfortable with their bodies or their homes being on camera? Should they encourage family involvement in learning from home -- which can be critical for some students -- or should they encourage students to be more autonomous so they don’t put those whose parents work outside the home at a disadvantage?

We undertook this series of interviews in response to the pandemic, to see how the pandemic was affecting the role of computational thinking in schools. Computational thinking is a problem-solving methodology and a pedagogy that focuses on breaking down problems into smaller steps and coming up with reusable solutions. In light of the current crises, the research team is interested in exploring the ways that it can support student learning. We found that educators familiar with computational thinking see it as a multifaceted, adaptable tool that can help students learn how to think. While it is not a silver bullet, the methodology may help teachers address some of the ethical trade-offs they’ve been concerned about.

Let’s Put It to Work

For Educators - Reflect on the professional challenges you have encountered since the beginning of the pandemic, and perhaps even before that. Are there learning challenges that could be addressed with different pedagogical tools? Computational thinking is one of the pedagogical tools that can give teachers visibility into students’ problem solving process and also offers a shared language for describing this process.

For School Administrators - Teachers have to navigate a number of uncertainties and trade-offs as they try out new systems and technologies with their students. Regardless of their specific concerns, they likely need additional support to do their jobs well. See a detailed description of different types of support here. Also consider if teachers and students might benefit from a shared learning tool like computational thinking. The white paper explains some of the potential for this approach, especially as education systems are struggling with constant change.

About the Project & Study

This white paper is based on two series of interviews in 2020. In the first interview period, we spoke to 12 educators between June 2 and July 9. The second interview period, from August 11 to 31, included eight of the individuals we spoke to in June, as well six additional educators. In total, we spoke to 18 educators. This project is part of Include Neurodiversity in Foundational & Applied Computational Thinking (INFACT), a grant supported by the Education Innovation and Research Program (EIR) of the U.S. Department of Education (award U411C190179).

Photo by Christina @ WOCinTechChat on Unsplash

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