What Does Computational Thinking Look Like in the Classroom?

ISTE Student Standard-Computational Thinker

Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.

  • 5aStudents formulate problem definitions suited for technology-assisted methods such as data analysis, abstract models and algorithmic thinking in exploring and finding solutions.
  • 5bStudents collect data or identify relevant data sets, use digital tools to analyze them, and represent data in various ways to facilitate problem-solving and decision-making.
  • 5cStudents break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving.
  • 5dStudents understand how automation works and use algorithmic thinking to develop a sequence of steps to create and test automated solutions.

My goal of this post is to understand what computational thinking is and share some resources that will allow you to engage your students in CT .

During the Obama administration, the US Department of Education was tasked with the priority of STEM education. “All young people should be prepared to think deeply and to think well so that they have the chance to become the innovators, educators, researchers, and leaders who can solve the most pressing challenges facing our nation and our world, both today and tomorrow.” (ed.gov/stem p.2) Could integrating computational thinking in our classrooms help with this mandate?

According to Jeanette Wing, computational thinking is a way of “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on concepts fundamental to computer science.” (Barr, pg. 2) But what does this look like in the classroom? I found the video below that is geared toward educators very helpful in understanding the four elements of Computational Thinking.

This video produced by Google explains the elements of computational thinking.
  • Decompose: This step is where students will take a problem and break it up into manageable pieces making the problem easier to solve.
  • Pattern Recognition: Students will find similarities in the data and are able to label it and recognize its importance in order to understand the problem.
  • Abstraction: In this step, students are able to extract the most important information, and by doing so, students are able to let go of personal bias and are able to focus their thinking.
  • Algorithm: Students will take all that they considered and come up with a solution.

In almost everything that I have read on this subject, it says that we use computational thinking in our everyday lives, when we are selecting the route home, selecting ingredients for dinner, and when we plan out how we are going to have uncomfortable conversations with others. But, in my mind, these are all activities that we do unconsciously. I want to understand how to intentionally teach students how to use computational thinking…

So, I Gave it a try.

This year, my students have been having trouble writing informative essays. I felt like I had to spoon feed them an outline for them to follow, which was not helping them understand the structure of writing. So I had an idea, instead of giving them an outline to write an argumentative essay, I gave them a mentor text. I asked them to work in teams and analyze the paragraphs in order for them to up with a formula (algorithm) that will help them write their own essay.

Like me, in the beginning they struggled with this task, they weren’t thinking deeply to find the abstract- they were giving me specific details about the essay. For example, in paragraph 1, they noticed Steve Jobs talked about his rules. This specific information wasn’t going to be useful in translating this to another prompt. They weren’t looking at the structure, they were looking at facts. After a bit of struggle, and a weekend to think about the process, we came back for a modeled lesson (you will notice that most of the groups have an identical paragraph 1 structure). And then the magic happened. Students were discovering the the first paragraph was an introduction. It had a hook, it grounded the reader in the author’s claim, and it was giving an overview of what to expect over the next few paragraphs. I was very proud of the work that the groups did on subsequent paragraphs. See student artifacts below.

Here is an (unfinished) example where they are creating an outline and adding in specific details that they will need to write about in their future essay. The are finding patterns in this essay that they will need to recreate in their next essay.
This group has a really strong paragraph 1 and 2. I like where they are going with paragraph 5 in talking about the effect of the rules on his life. I think this is representative of the Abstraction Stage.
This group really dove deep into understanding the structure of the paragraphs. This group will most likely vary the way they introduce the information in each paragraph, making it less formulaic.
I would say that this group excelled on the algorithm part of computational thinking. They introduced a loop.

This was our first attempt at intentionally using computational thinking in the class. It was a difficult process, getting the kids to understand what I was asking in the beginning. I think that when I thought more deeply about what I was wanting the students to achieve (my own personal computational thinking- lesson planning) and modeled the lesson, students really started connecting with the abstractness of this lesson. Thanks to computational thinking, I bet that their follow up essays will be much improved.


In all of my research, I came across a lot of great information and activities that you can use to introduce computational thinking in your classroom that I would like to share with you.

K-12 Teacher Resources- This is an excellent resource provided to you by ISTE, NSF, and CSTA. It includes lesson ideas k-12 including the one that I used in my class above.

Computational Thinking for Educators– this is a free on-line course offered by Google to teach educators how to implement computational thinking into their curriculum.

Computational Lesson Plans and Projects– This resource is amazing! Green Dot Public Schools intentionally integrate CT across all disciplines. On this site, you will find engaging detailed lesson plans for students in middle grades and up.

ISTE Blog– This site is full of “learn-it-today, use-it-in-your-classroom tomorrow” resources.

Code.org– Unplugged activities are great ways to introduce computational thinking to students of all ages.


  • Barr, D., Harrison, J., & Conery, L. (2011). Computational thinking: A digital age skill for everyone. Learning & Leading with Technology, 38(6), 20-23.
  • U.S. Department of Education. Science, technology, engineering and math: education for global leadership. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/stem
  • ISTE Standards for Students. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students
  • Introduction to computational thinking – Revision 1 – KS3 Computer Science – BBC Bitesize. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zp92mp3/revision/1
  • Computational Thinking. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/topic/computational-thinking
  • Computational Thinking. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://studio.code.org/s/course3/stage/1/puzzle/1
  • Welcome! (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ct.excelwa.org/
  • Computational Thinking for Educators – Course. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://computationalthinkingcourse.withgoogle.com/course?use_last_location=true

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