Transferring Computational Thinking into all domains of learning

Janette Wing was the first to popularise the importance of computational thinking across many domains of learning. This led to a flurry of computational thinking activities outside of computing. Activities such as my Jam Sandwich or Bareroots Crazy Characters. The idea was that children would learn about algorithmic thinking and evaluation, decomposition, generalisation and abstraction in non-computing contexts and they would transfer these fundamental thinking skills across the curriculum. But does this really happen?

Research into transference 1 suggests that this is by no means guaranteed and that there are important factors that increase the chance of transference. So, what are these?

Firstly, depth of understanding and time spent soaking in that understanding increases the amount of transference. If a subject is rote learned or just touched upon then it is less likely to be transferred and used elsewhere. While I am not suggesting that Crazy Characters or the Jam Sandwich are rote learning I would doubt that on their own there is enough depth to generate a high level of transference.

Secondly, transference is increased by real world applicability and useful purpose. We know that pupils writing for a real purpose take more time and effort over their work. Whilst on the surface the creation of a Jam Sandwich might seem like a real world application, in reality no one would make a Sandwich like that. Programming and digital literacy, especially if it is linked to real world applications that children see and use has much greater real-world context and purpose.

Thirdly, being learning orientated rather than performance orientated increases transfer. But the evidence suggests that pupils can be performance orientated in one subject and learning orientated in another subject. For generalist primary teachers this information is useful. If we promote a meta cognitive learning about learning culture across the curriculum we will increase the amount of transference our pupils make. For the specialist computing teacher this is less useful as encouraging our colleagues in other subjects to foster learning in a certain way is a much more difficult proposition.

Fourthly, pupils need to be prompted to make these links. Teachers need to provide hints to help pupils connect the domains of learning up. How might our lesson in computing yesterday be relevant or useful to our lesson in X today? Teachers who prompt with hints increase the chance of transference.

Fifthly, solving something in one way and then being encouraged to adapt the solution even a little bit increases the chance of transference. This is great news for computing as generalisation is a key computational thinking skill.

I draw these conclusions from my brief research.

While computational thinking concepts are important in many domains transference is not guaranteed or even likely without teachers actively encouraging this through the steps mentioned above.

I am not sure that all pupils transfer the computational thinking learnt in a non-computing context into a computing context let alone across the wider curriculum. This has prompted me as a computing science specialist to evaluate all the non-computing computational thinking activities that I teach. If I can think of a better way to introduce them in a computing specific way I use that. Although I accept that a general primary teacher can develop real computational thinking transference if they follow some or all the steps mentioned above.

Whilst I remain convinced that computational thinking is achievable in many domains, without actively building depth in our own computing one I doubt we will affect real transference into other domains as we need to soak pupils in this thinking for them to develop mastery and transference.

This would make a fascinating research subject. 
A group with a plugged computational thinking activity
A group with an un-plugged non-computing computational thinking activity where no attempt is made to follow good practice as mentioned above followed by the same plugged computational thinking activity.
A group with an un-plugged non-computing computational thinking activity where every attempt is made to follow good practice as mentioned above followed by the same plugged computational thinking activity.

1 How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition chapter 3 (you can read the book freely here)