The Creative Power of Computational Thinking

If there’s one thing shared among disciplines, it’s creativity.

Just as words can be used to evoke new images, so can figures and formulas conjure up novel ideas. Mathematics can be playful, telling stories through numbers and variables. The scientific method is a framework for exploration.

Likewise, computational thinking isn’t confined to a single field. It’s not solely a STEM task, despite the name. Whether it’s engaging through diagramming sentences, creating storyboards or looking for bird migration patterns, computational thinking enhances learning in all disciplines.

Thinking computationally is a creative act.

Computational Thinking and Creative Thought

Computational thinking is a problem-solving lens that builds and bolsters 21st-century skills. With its foundation in computer science, computational thinking focuses on decomposing big ideas into smaller parts, looking for patterns, abstracting unnecessary information and building algorithms to both iterate and improve upon repetitive actions. While there are other ways to engage in computational thinking, many groups agree that these skills are vital.

It’s often said that students today are training to work in jobs that don’t currently exist. For this reason, students need to learn how to grasp new ideas quickly. Computational thinking, with its focus on creative thought, helps to acclimatize learners to novel ideas — and the more exposure to working with and generating new ideas, the better.

That said, while computational thinking is rightly seen as a useful skill regarding workforce development, it’s also a way to approach problems in an increasingly complex world. Abstraction makes an influx of information more manageable. Decomposition makes complex tasks less daunting.

Creatively applied computational thinking engages learning and memory. For example, mnemonic devices, embodying both creative imagery and decomposition, can be used to help memorize static info such as terminology, formulas or theories. Abstraction, the ability to distill something to its essence — as a subcategory, or a topic, or even just a part of its whole — is inherently creative.

Decomposition and Abstraction: The Seeds of an Idea

Decomposition takes an object or idea and breaks it into parts. These parts don’t have to be abstracted; they can be actual parts of a whole, such as the wheels on a car. But abstraction pairs well with decomposition, so the two are often used together.

Decomposition can be used to reinterpret nonliteral things, be they symbols or creative works. It sometimes goes together with deconstructionism. A deconstructionist film might play with the tropes and ideas of a genre, making the familiar unfamiliar. In the physical world, deconstructed objects can become collages. Chefs within the field of molecular gastronomy, for example, deconstruct dishes, providing new ways of exploring recognizable flavors.

When students use decomposition to break down an idea, the resultant parts become raw materials. If students use decomposition to determine the parts of a plant, those parts could be rebuilt into something new, mixed and matched as an abstracted idea. Likewise, a deconstructed sentence could become a template for students to build their own. Shakespearean Mad Libs, anyone?

Pattern Matching: Compare, Contrast, Create

Pattern matching is looking at the ways that objects in a series are alike and different. Sometimes there is a discernible methodology to the way they are ordered. Other times, the objects may have a logic to their grouping, if not their order. Depending on the problem, discovering a pattern can lead to a breakthrough.

Patterns can sometimes feel individualized. Just as a student may create their own mnemonic devices, drawing upon their own interests, so can they see patterns through their own lived experience. Expanding on these patterns — for example, using poetic forms to write poetry — is both computational thinking and creativity.

On the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (#MTBoS on Twitter), teachers sometimes share the phrase “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” as a classroom conversation starter. An image will be shown, often displaying objects arranged in a certain pattern. For younger students particularly, this sort of curiosity-driven approach to mathematics can inspire a sense of wonder toward a subject many kids find scary.

Professional learner and professor Dr. Barbara Oakley wrote in her book A Mind for Numbers that she thought she wasn’t a math person in high school. Once she became more curious about the field — and was driven by a practical desire to master its concepts — she realized she enjoyed it. Prior to going back to school to study STEM, she learned Russian. In a way, both her language learning and her math studies became creative ways to explore patterns.

Algorithms: Iterative Creativity

Algorithmic thinking is taking something with a discernible pattern or sequence and breaking it down into steps. Algorithms are deeply embedded into everyday technologies. Google searches use an algorithm to display results, while changing algorithms are at fault for switching up social media feeds, for good or ill.

Given that algorithms often have a known beginning and end, creativity might seem to be a non-issue. But the steps of an algorithm don’t necessarily have a prescribed form. Determining the sequence of those steps, the building of the algorithm itself, is part of the process.

Algorithmic thinking requires creativity. Take planning a road trip, for example. Does the trip need to be done as fast as possible? (“I’ve only got two vacation days… better make them count!”) Is the journey more important than the destination? (“I need to find myself.”) While the start and end of the trip are set, the different requirements create a whole new experience, and a whole different set of steps.

To learn about algorithms, students can write recipes to practice step-by-step thinking. Within those steps, there’s a certain measure of creativity — particularly when other computational thinking skills, such as pattern matching to swap ingredients, are used.

Creative Ideas in Novel Combinations

While each of these computational thinking skills have specified purposes, combining tasks can lead to further novelty. For example, decomposition can lead to abstracted parts, which can be used to build an algorithm to produce new creations.

This combinatory use of computational thinking aligns with the way it’s used for real-world work. For example, project management involves decomposing projects, creating iterative tasks, and matching people to problems. And of course, career programmers use computational thinking as standard practice.

In isolation, computational thinking skills are useful. Through simplified tasks, students can let their creativity shine. That said, in combining tasks, they are truly creating novel things. Computational thinking can be a creative endeavor — or it can be the start of one.

Jesika Brooks is an editor and bookworm with a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She works in the field of higher education as an educational technology librarian, assisting with everything from setting up Learning Management Systems to teaching students how to use edtech tools. A lifelong learner herself, she has always been fascinated by the intersection of education and technology. She edits the Tech-Based Teaching blog (and always wants to hear from new voices!).

Tech-Based Teaching: Computational Thinking in the Classroom

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Tech-Based Teaching is all about computational thinking, edtech, and the ways that tech enriches learning. Want to contribute? Reach out to edutech@wolfram.com.

Tech-Based Teaching: Computational Thinking in the Classroom

Collaborate and share experiences, tools, and ideas on implementing computational thinking in the classroom. By and for teachers, students, and learners.

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