Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Bruce Sherin

"Computational literacy is … having the knowledge that allows you to really harness the power of the computer," says associate professor Bruce Sherin, who emphasizes the usefulness of programming skills.

kids with touch table
Assistant professor Michael Horn is studying how tabletop computer technology can promote collaboration and better learning. He seeks to develop tools that encourage computer programming for young kids.
policy world cover
Assistant professor Matthew Easterday designed the Policy World video game to help students understand policy problems. His research explores principles for designing with new learning technologies.
Anastasia Stanley Excerpt from a letter by sixth grader Anastasia Stanley to SESP Center for Talent Development director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

Last spring, I took an online class and participated in an extracurricular club with Gifted LearningLinks. I enjoyed the program very much. I enrolled in Scratching Technology I and signed up to participate in the architecture club.

Scratching Technology helped me understand the basic ideas behind programming. During the class, I created multiple games using an introductory programming language. The class not only helped me understand some of the basics for programming, but also helped me understand why math is so important. I created a couple of programs that needed me to count out the moves of each character, or 'sprite.' Planning out everything was really important or nothing worked in the program...

I absolutely loved the class and the club. First of all, both changed the way I looked at math, technology, programming and architecture. … These classes also helped to introduce me to different job opportunities and careers. Because I really did not know much about programming, I never thought this might be something I would like to do one day. But once I took the class, I started thinking differently. Now I think about what I might need to learn in school in case I do want to be a programmer one day.

Without the Center for Talent Development I would have never had the experience and knowledge I do now.

Computational Literacy: As Essential as ABC?

By Marilyn Sherman
Illustration Computational Literacy

"Teaching computational literacy will be a no-brainer in the future," maintains SESP associate professor Bruce Sherin. Like most members of the Learning Sciences faculty, he believes that computational literacy is essential for 21st-century students. But what exactly is computational literacy, and what makes most learning sciences professors think of it as a must-have skill?

When Sherin speaks of computational literacy, he distinguishes it from computer literacy — that is, being able to boot up a computer, use a keyboard and mouse, and work with basic computer programs. "It's widely accepted that we want kids to have some sort of computer literacy," he says.

"Computational literacy is much more. It's having the knowledge that allows you to really harness the power of the computer." This requires being able to do computer programming at some level, says Sherin, who points out that programming can range from creating a simple Excel formula to running an elaborate computer system. Like many other learning sciences scholars, assistant professor Michael Horn defines computational literacy as the ability to use computers and computational technologies to solve problems — in school and in the community.

Why it computes

Although computational literacy is powerful, it's also a tough sell for schools racing to keep up with accountability standards and saddled with multiple mandates. However, it's inevitable that computational tools will be among the basic skills we'll expect people to have in the 21st century, says Sherin. "Computational literacy is going to filter into the curriculum with upcoming generations."

One strong argument for teaching computational literacy is that thinking like a programmer improves learning and instills habits of mind that are generally useful. By learning to program computers, children gain a valuable problem-solving toolset for learning and thinking about the world, explains Horn. "Those sorts of skills that computer scientists are good at are broadly applicable."

A second argument, the "pathways argument," is that computational literacy should be taught because some students will go on to jobs that require computational skills, just as calculus is taught because certain fields require it. Thirdly and most importantly, according to Sherin, simple utility is an argument for computational literacy. "Almost no matter what discipline you go into, some programming is going to be useful," he says.

Even once teaching computational literacy is accepted, questions remain about how to teach it and when to teach it. Like reading and writing, computational literacy can be taught as a separate subject or throughout the curriculum — or both. For computational skill to be come a true literacy, integrating it with the teaching of other disciplines would probably be ideal, according to Sherin.

When to begin teaching computer programming is another question. Right from the beginning is Sherin's answer, especially since more and more programming languages are being designed for young kids.

Professor Uri Wilensky developed one of those languages, called NetLogo, which is easy enough for children and powerful enough for postgraduates. He and other researchers in the Center for Connected Learning apply NetLogo computer modeling to teach children science in an engaging and understandable way. Wilensky's NetLogo Investigations in Middle School Science and Mathematics offers a vibrant learning environment for science and mathematics. For example, in one interactive model, students play a game called Sheep and Wolf that demonstrates predator-prey relationships, and in another students see how a virus spreads. Two other curriculum projects in Chicago and Singapore schools use engaging computer models to teach evolutionary science and electricity to students as young as fifth grade.

In a new project called NetTango, Horn is adapting Wilensky's computer models to teach science to first to fourth graders using a multitouch tabletop computer display. Children stand around the display, which is about the size of a coffee table, and operate it with their fingers. Horn and doctoral student Izabel Olson are studying how this tabletop technology is best used. "It has the potential to promote positive collaboration and more effective learning when used with other tools," he says.

Horn, whose long-term research goal is "to develop tools that get younger kids into programming and exploring computers," has devised ways to teach children as young as four years old basic computer programming. For young tots, he first tells a simple story and then teaches them how to program robots to act out the story by lining up technology-enabled blocks in certain patterns.

Graduating computer gurus

At a much more advanced level, the Learning Sciences faculty sees the need for graduate students to receive training in computational methods since researchers often use computers to solve research problems. For example, network analysis and computer modeling methods are becoming increasingly valued, Sherin says.

Compared to most graduate schools of education, SESP is unusual in its ability to offer training in computational literacy, he adds. This fall SESP will offer a new required course introducing computational skills, and ultimately an entire sequence of courses will be offered.

Sherin himself applies computational methods in his research, which mainly focuses on how young children learn science. He conducts extensive interviews with young children to determine the understanding they have of the world prior to any science instruction. For coding his data, he draws on work by computational linguists, who have developed algorithms for coding text. These statistical techniques for natural language processing help to validate Sherin's analysis of the children's comments.

Computational literacy in action

Assistant professor Matthew Easterday's work falls within another movement in computational literacy — the design of educational technology. Easterday researches how to move from what he calls "the messy world" to clear-cut representations that help students learn about public policy and politics. He's careful to incorporate "intelligent tutoring," which provides feedback to students, because research shows its value.

Easterday's Policy World video game, which is modeled after a popular adventure game, is designed to help students understand policy problems and become civically engaged. In this educational game, students play the role of young policy analysts and debate against a lobbyist to convince a senator they're right. Policy topics range from the drinking age to video game violence, universal health care and methamphetamine use. Easterday's research has found that diagrams are effective for learning to analyze policy, which is why the game has students diagram claims and evidence. "If you can get students to make a causal diagram of a policy, they're better able to understand policy," notes Easterday, whose long-term goal is to design a civics curriculum.

Overall, Easterday's research explores how to create a representational world and the principles for designing with new technologies. "I try to understand what the student needs to learn and which learning principles I can use, and then come up with technologies they can use." After strategic refinement of the design, he does a pre and post experiment to see if it works. "I'm interested in design because that's really the heart of education," he says.

In a recent experiment he compared two methods of t eaching about policy issues: a video game, which penalized wrong answers, and a computer tutor, which gave hints after a wrong answer. "The computer tutor was more effective for learning and more interesting to students," says Easterday, who became interested in policy and education when he developed curriculum as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia.

Easterday sees the computer as important, but never replacing a teacher. "Educational technologies are valuable to use to automate teaching basic skills — with immediate step-level feedback. Then the teacher does more complex teaching while the computer teaches the basics," he comments.

Various movements in computational literacy weave together in the SESP Learning Sciences program. While each faculty member takes a different approach, all would probably agree with Easterday when he says, "When you can use technology to cause learning, you have a lot of advantages." For today's students, computers can become the cornerstone for building a new literacy to change their learning.