Cracking the Code to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

By Shannon Ririe

using coding to teach critical thinking skillsThinking back on different educational conferences that I have attended, I can think of at least ten different times where the presenter has shared some variation of the statement, “We are preparing our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.” What does that statement mean for how we teach and prepare our students, including our younger students? And what does that mean for the companies that develop the curriculum and programs educators use in our classrooms?

Recently Martin Boehm, the new dean of IE Business School, was interviewed about the topic of our changing workforce and stated, “One thing that’s always going to be important is critical thinking skills, the ability to solve complex problems,” [Martin] said. “When we think about the changing times and the [unclear] future…having this cognitive flexibility is absolutely key to adapting.”*

Teachers are experts at finding ways to explicitly teach critical thinking skills, and one way that is incredibly relevant today, and becoming more and more common, is through teaching coding. This is not just happening at a secondary level, but as early as kindergarten, teachers are introducing elements of programming to their students. Using both “unplugged” activities that teach concepts of programming without using any devices, to online programs that utilize the beginning coding language of blockly (where students drag and drop blocks that already have under-the-hood programming attached), students are taught basic programming structure and concepts. Students are engaged and excited to be creators instead of just consumers. Teachers capitalize on that excitement to teach students strategies to help them confidently handle open-ended and multi-step problems, debugging approaches to find errors in their code, and effective ways to communicate with their peers while coming up with unique solutions to programming problems and projects.

There are many coding programs for teachers out there, but many of them only focus on teaching elements of computer science. Although after reading that sentence you may think, “well, duh.” The reality is that teachers are overloaded, and if they only see a program/product as one more thing they have to fit into their day, it can seem impossible. The coding program or product that not only teaches students elements of coding, but also has direct ties to curriculum will be the program that teachers can embrace. 

For example: there is a fun set of robots called Dash and Dot that I show to teachers who respond positively, but ultimately with, “I love it...but what would I do with it?”. Following the introduction of the robots, they then do an activity where, using blockly, they program Dash to be a “world tour guide,” driving all over a map of the world, reporting facts recorded by the teachers themselves about the places Dash stops. All of a sudden teachers go from looking at a fun toy, to a tool that could be used to assess understanding of geography, or an unusual way to present research from country reports, all while students are practicing all the critical thinking skills that come from “writing” their own code. Now the robots have a purpose that is directly related to classroom content. Innovative teachers are coming up with ideas on their own, but there is still plenty of room for improvement on the programs and products that are available to teachers.  

Not all of our students will find a career in computer programming, we all understand that. But will they find themselves in a career where they need to be self-motivated and solve problems? What about a career that can at times be frustrating? How about a career that requires them to work and communicate effectively with a team? Find solutions to problems that are open-ended? Even if we can’t predict exactly what the world and workforce will look like for our students in the next 15 or 20 years, those skills, that “cognitive flexibility” that comes from being explicitly taught elements of critical thinking, will be essential. Which makes it essential that the tools students use in the classroom today are designed to help them develop and put into practice those critical thinking skills. 

 

* Martin Boehm: preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. (2017). Times Higher Education (THE). Retrieved 1 March 2018, from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/martin-boehm-preparing-students-for-jobs-that-dont-exist-yet

About the Author

Shannon RirieShannon Ririe is currently a professional development trainer for the Utah Education Network. She earned her BS in elementary education and MS in Instructional Design and Education Technology. She taught elementary school and worked as a technology specialist for 11 years, developing a passion for using technology to enable and enhance learning that takes place in and out of the classroom.