The Role of Unplugged Coding Activity in Developing Computational Thinking in Ages 6-11

The Role of Unplugged Coding Activity in Developing Computational Thinking in Ages 6-11

Gaia Lombardi (Istituto Comprensivo Statale Via dei Salici, Legnano, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4576-8.ch008


Coding is a spreading teaching methodology that is involving more students and teachers all over the world. But how can the practice of coding affect the development of computational thinking strategies in early years? The author, a primary school teacher, will investigate the Italian experience, believing that it may constitute an excellent field of study on the matter thanks to the enormous enthusiasm with which coding was received by the teachers, capable of renewing their teaching practices, particularly in primary school. This is a movement born from below, from the spontaneous participation of teachers, and which, in many cases, has been substantiated in what can be defined as unplugged activities, without the use of electronic technological tools.
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Coding and Computational Thinking are with no doubts the new keywords of teaching (Bocconi et el. 2016) but what is the true meaning of these words, and what are the differences of substance between the two terms? Computational Thinking is nowadays strongly argued to be a crucial skill for the 21st Century students, the so called “digital natives”, -but, as a matter of fact, a generation of less or more good users of a pervasive digital technology (Bell & Roberts, 2016). However, let's start by pointing out that despite the fact that the role and significance of computing has increased in society and the economy (Wilson, Sudol, Stephenson, & Stehlik, 2010), student motivation to enroll in computing fields is in decline (Karakus, Uludag, Guler, Turner, & Ugur, 2012).

According to the studies of Jeannette Wing in 2006 (Wing, 2006), Computational Thinking can be defined as “the process of solving problems that allows to face and solve a problem in a procedural way” through a sequence of ordered steps that can be generalized to any similar situation (Brennan, & Resnick, 2012). The procedure thus identified takes the name of “algorithm”, and its strength in its reproducibility through instructions so simple and unambiguous that they can be dictated to what is called an “ideal performer”, human or machine it be.

From this point of view, Computational Thinking is a way of conceptualizing: thinking like a computer and describing a way of thinking at multiple levels of abstraction (del Olmo-Muñoz, Cózar-Gutiérrez, & González-Calero, 2020). In that sense, Computational Thinking can be defined also as a set of specific cognitive skills and problem-solving processes that allows the student to reformulate difficult problems into one, already known, that he can solve. To set an algorithm, the student also needs to then recursively, in a procedural way (Lee & Junoh, 2019; Kanaki & Kalogiannakis, 2018; Kalogiannakis & Kanaki, 2020).

Following from that, it appears with strong evidence that Computational Thinking is a skill everyone should possess, be it child, teenager or adult; not only what are defined as “millennials,” who, both for generational and social reasons, could no longer disregard the use (and therefore the knowledge itself) of technological devices, but also their fathers, even the most obstinately “digital immigrants”. Computational thinking is the “forma mentis” of the 21st century. In this social and cultural perspective, computational thinking is a universal basic skill, that should be even taught at school (Vidakis et al., 2019).

So, what is the relationship between computational thinking and coding? How are they interconnected and what role does each of them play in the school? Computational Thinking can be learned -and even mastered- from childhood, and the probably best way to do it is to develop it through the principles of coding. Coding is the training ground (or the playground...) in which to develop computational thinking skills. Through coding, in fact, children can find an immediate and tangible application to theoretical principles of Computational Thinking (Sands, Yadav, & Good, 2018).

From an educational point of view, the significant qualities of coding are that coding allows children to learn by doing; to collaborate in founding creative solutions to problems and to share their work; to have fun while practicing and to learn through fun activity; finally, coding is the main way to approach basic programming languages (Saxena, Lo, Hew, Hew, & Wong, 2020).

In this sense, coding can be considered not a mere school subject to study (and to add to an already very rich curriculum), but a didactic methodology in all respects (Kalogiannakis, 2008; Kalogiannakis & Papadakis, 2007; 2008).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Educational Robotics: Is an interdisciplinary learning environment based on the use of robots and electronic components to enhance the development of skills and competencies in students.

Programming: Lines of code that are written in a certain language that demands a logic of reasoning from the developers.

STEM: The term STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is an acronym used by those relevant to the educational method concerning the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

ICT (Information and Communication Technology): A term that covers all technical means used to handle information and aid communication, including software and hardware.

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