There are many areas in the computer science field in which computational thinking plays an important role. This kind of goes without saying, but it raises the question of how we move computational thinking into other subject areas, specifically with subject areas like history or English. As an English Language Arts teacher (ELA) of high school students, I have found many writing struggles. Yes, I know many students struggle with writing, but many want a formula to follow. They wrestle with thinking creatively. Looking at ISTE number 5c, which says, “Students break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving” (ISTE), I ask the question, “How can we create a “computational thinking” mindset in our students in non-computer science subjects like English Language Arts (ELA)?” More specifically, I want to look at how to apply computational thinking to something like writing an essay, which can carry over into other subject areas beyond ELA.
Writing an essay presents many challenges in itself, and trying to apply computational thinking kind of complicates matters a little. First and foremost, a more straightforward way to view computational thinking is solving a problem. To solve the problem computationally, we must break down the main things and then look for patterns. Taking the basic five-paragraph essay (yes, I know that is an on-going debate), the components are the introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I have just completed one element of the standard by “breaking problems into component parts.”
Next, students should then look for patterns, such as having an introduction that begins with a hook, some background information, and a thesis statement that offers three points to be covered in each body paragraph. Many little nuances can get in the way here, such as writing the thesis in the conclusion or making sure to have a “hook” in the introduction, yet it is not too difficult to break down the essay and look for patterns. Without worrying too much about the “What about this? or What about that?,” just looking at it computationally does not have to be complicated.
Additionally, ISTE 5c also notes that students “develop descriptive models.” Many teachers already teach the five-paragraph essay using the “hamburger” model (Here are some free ones on TPT). The computational method could also be applied to each paragraph of the essay. Moreover, computational thinking can be applied to sentence structure, etc. There are many ways one could continue to look at using this standard in ELA.
As a student, there were quite a few books that I loved reading in school. Lord of the Flies was one that stuck with me. Now, I love being able to teach this novel to my students! In an essay titled, “DISSECT: Exploring the Relationship Between Computational Thinking and English Literature in K-12 Curricula,” the authors experimented with applying computational thinking within several subject areas other than computer science. One component of computational thinking is abstract models. ISTE glosses this word explaining, “representation of a relationship, concept, or structure” (ISTE). In an ELA class, the teacher experimented with 12th grade students, computational thinking, and Lord of the Flies. The teacher noted, “One of the goals of ENG12 is to teach students how to identify symbols and explain in a multi-paragraph essay how the symbols developed through the entire piece of literature” (3). Anyone who has read this great novel knows there are quite a few symbols throughout. The conch is used as a symbol of order and civility. The authors write, “[A]fter a group of students identified the 125+ instances of ‘conch,’ a symbol representing societal order, they used abstraction to summarize the development of the conch” (3). The conclusion of a grand experiment showed, “CT [computational thinking] can be seamlessly taught within the context of an English Literature course” (8).
I think that some of us tend to see courses such as ELA to require students to think creatively and be able to use skills like inferencing. While this is true, many of the skills that come into play for students can be viewed with computational thinking. For students who tend to think more in logic (mathematically), finding component parts and patterns can be beneficial and help make humanities courses more accessible.
Iste standards for students. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students
Nesiba, N., Pontelli, E., & Staley, T. (2015). DISSECT: Exploring the relationship between computational thinking and English literature in K-12 curricula. 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 1-8.