Computational Thinking in Elementary Schools: A Case Study

Jacoby III, Albert, Curriculum and Instruction - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Chiu, Jennifer, CU-Curr Instr & Sp Ed, University of Virginia
Mintz, Susan, CU-Curr Instr & Sp Ed, University of Virginia
Garofalo, Joe, CU-Curr Instr & Sp Ed, University of Virginia

Computational thinking (CT) is the process of thinking through complex problems logically and is comprised of five core elements: abstraction, generalization, decomposition, algorithms, and debugging (Angeli et al., 2016). Learning to process and break down problems logically, similar to the way that a computer does, encourages students to use technology to become producers of information and content. Students can harness creativity and imagination to solve complex problems through abstraction, pattern generalization, decomposition, iterative thinking, and debugging (Grover & Pea, 2013). Calls to include computational thinking instruction in K-12 schooling promotes equity and access of learning experiences to student groups that otherwise would not be exposed to skills that would widen their economic opportunities later in life. Promoting computational thinking skills better prepares students to be functional members of society capable of solving problems they encounter daily.

In order to address the push from global organizations and former President Barack Obama (2016), Virginia legislature mandated that computational thinking be included in the Standards of Learning (SOLs). As a result, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) published new SOLs on computer science, which include specific computational thinking skills like abstraction, generalization, decomposition, algorithms and debugging. Classroom teachers in Virginia public schools are expected to teach these new SOLs beginning in the fall of 2019.
The purpose of this capstone study is to understand how elementary school teachers in Rockview County School District (RCSD) make sense of, plan for, and integrate CT into their lessons. Therefore, the problem of practice that I seek to answer in this capstone study is as follows: How can we help teachers implement new standards for computational thinking and infuse the instruction into their lessons?

The structure of this capstone study was an embedded, single-case study of four third grade teachers at three elementary schools in one school district who attempted to integrate a new topic into their curriculum. The data collection for this study occurred over an eleven-week period from November 2018 through February 2019. The procedures for data collection included observations of two lessons by each teacher, follow-up interviews after each lesson, and the review of documents associated with lesson planning. The data analysis procedures of data condensation, data display, and verification follows the process outlined by Miles and Huberman (1994). The design of this capstone study sought trustworthiness by addressing credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. The study addressed the confidentiality of participants and the research sites by using pseudonyms.

The findings of this capstone study reflect the practices of these four third grade teachers only, limiting the generalizations to other teachers. The five findings of this single-case study are as follows:
1. Only three of the eight lessons taught by teachers in RCSD as a part of this capstone study contained elements of CT. Each of the three touched upon one or more element of CT identified by Angeli et al. (2016) to varying degrees and collectively touched upon all five elements.
2. Teachers whose lessons contained elements of CT used direct, didactic instruction in order to integrate CT into their instruction. Teachers focused on helping students understand CT terms and vocabulary by relating the concepts to students’ everyday lives.
3. Teachers in RCSD did not have a common, shared understanding of the meaning of CT as defined by the elements identified by Angeli et al. (2016) or otherwise. Teachers suffered from definitional confusion related to CT and struggled to make sense of their own interpretations of CT, even when provided with concrete definitions and relevant examples.
4. The lessons that touched upon elements of CT were taught by two teachers who used CT resources. Resources include lesson plans, articles, graphics, and instructional videos. Two teachers who did not touch upon elements of CT did not use CT resources.
5. One teacher who taught lessons that touched upon elements of CT used district support personnel. Those personnel accessed and modified CT resources and co-planned the lessons with the teacher.

Implications and Recommendations
Based on the implications of the findings, the recommendations to the VDOE and RCSD include ways for those organizations to promote successful integration of computational thinking and the Computer Science Standards of Learning into classroom instruction. The recommendations are as follows:
• Recommendation One: VDOE should adopt a clear, operational definition of CT for teachers, include a “Computational Thinking and Coding” section on grade-level standards documents, and include related CS standards on content area standards documents and curriculum blueprints.
• Recommendation Two: RCSD should make use of available professional development opportunities sponsored by the VDOE.
• Recommendation Three: RCSD should create a Computer Science SOL Leadership group to support integration of CT and CS standards into instruction across the district. This group would provide professional development opportunities and RCSD-specific instructional resources.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
Computational Thinking, Elementary Education, Case Study
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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