Unplugged activities are often used as an approach to learn computer science concepts without the use of computers. There is research that supports the use of unplugged activities as a means to effectively introduce students to Computational Thinking, especially when done in a familiar context (Repenning et al., 2015).
In his book, Computing without a Computer (2014), Dr. Paul Curzon quotes Hideki Yukawa, the first Japanese Nobel Prize winner in Physics:
Suppose there is something which a person cannot understand. He happens to notice the similarity of this something to some other thing which he understands quite well. By comparing them he may come to understand the thing which he could not understand up to that moment.
In addition to connecting new concepts to familiar contexts, unplugged activities are also beneficial when technology is not available or to limit the amount of time our students spend looking at screens. In Teaching Computational Thinking and Coding in Primary Schools (2017), Morris, Uppal and Wells suggest beginning with unplugged activities in K-1 classrooms as students often require a better understanding of their own spatial awareness and directional language before moving onto coding a physical device. Furthermore, unplugged experiences can be viewed as an effective means to introduce foundational concepts of Computational Thinking before moving onto other pedagogical experiences, although, a teacher may opt to use unplugged at any stage in a learning continuum (Kotsopoulos et al., 2017).
Not all experts agree that unplugged activities are the most effective way to ensure students are exposed to crucial Computational Thinking experiences. It is sometimes argued that taking the time to learn computer science concepts through writing code on a computer can help educators gain a deeper understanding of Computational Thinking. This may allow for educators to develop their own ideas for integrating Computational Thinking into their everyday teaching practices and into other subject areas.
While these criticisms provide considerations for the development of Computational Thinking activities as well as grounds for further research, classroom teachers should investigate for themselves the potential advantages and ease of incorporating unplugged activities into their practice for the benefit of their own students’ learning.
Unplugged ideas for incorporating Computational Thinking into everyday practice
Some practical unplugged activities that might help to foster Computational Thinking have been shared below. In many instances, Computational Thinking can support logical ways to approach everyday problems and activities (Shute, Sun & Asbell-Clarke, 2017).
As each suggested activity is considered, it is important to remember the important role that teachers play in helping students learn through listening, questioning, provoking and recognizing contexts (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017). Effective pedagogy should be at the centre of all new ideas that we incorporate into our practice. To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner and although we can do our best to apply our understanding of new best practices, we should always keep in mind our knowledge of our own students’ learning needs.
As Grover and Pea (2018) mention in Computational Thinking: A Competency Whose Time Has Come, math and science are the “most intuitive contexts for CT learning”. There is promise; however, to develop Computational Thinking in all subject areas, especially when it comes to problem solving.
*As with all good teaching practice, any time the teacher is able to use a cross-curricular approach to ensure that students see connections between subject areas and to real-life, they should do so!
Let us know if you have additional ideas that we can include in this list!
Lisa Anne Floyd:
Lisa Anne is an advocate for introducing students and teachers to the world of coding. She is a Computational Thinking in Math and Science Education instructor in the Bachelor of Education program at Western University, for which she has received an award for excellence in teaching in an undergraduate program. Lisa has her Masters in Mathematics Education and likes to consider research and evidence-based practices while integrating coding ideas across all subject areas. She loves to share her passion for creative coding and digital making tools with students and teachers at school districts and educational conferences. Lisa is on a leave of absence from the Thames Valley District School Board, where she has years of experience teaching secondary Computer Science, Math and Science.
Barb, an educator and lifelong learner, is passionate about making mathematics accessible to all. As an educator with Thames Valley District School Board in London Ontario, and a Provincial Mathematics Professional Learning Facilitator, Barb offers a wealth of knowledge and expertise in integrating new technology with math curriculum. Barb works with District School Boards across Canada delivering professional learning on computational thinking, coding and integrating programmable devices, Makey Makey and more. She strives to empower educators to see the many technology connections that can enhance their curriculum.
Barat, A., Malchiodi, D., & Barat, A. (2017). ScienceDirect Fostering Computational Computational Thinking in in Primary Primary School through a LEGO-based Music Notation. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2017.08.018
Curzon, P. (2014). Computing Without Computers, 0–197. Retrieved from: https://smartfuse.s3.amazonaws.com/d3a3ddb3f55b92cb348b18b85f43909a/uploads/2014/06/computing-without-a-computer.pdf
Grover, S., & Pea, R. (2018). Computational Thinking: A competency whose time has come. In S. Sentance, E. Barendsen, & S. Carsten (Eds.), Computer Science Education: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in School. pp. 19–38. Bloomsbury.
Kotsopoulos, D., Floyd, L., Khan, S., Namukasa, I., Somanath, S., Weber, J., Yiu, C. (2017). A Pedagogical Framework for Computational Thinking. Digital Experience in Mathematics Education.
Morris, D., Uppal, G., & Wells, D. (2017). Teaching Computational Thinking and Coding in Primary Schools. SAGE Publications.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). Paying Attention to Spatial Reasoning, K-12 Support Document for Paying Attention to Mathematics Education, 1–28. Retrieved from papers3://publication/uuid/2E549EDC-042C-4F74-AA45-A859A3EDE041
Repenning, A., Webb, D. C., Koh, K., Nickerson, H., Miller, S. B., Brand, C., Her Many Horses, I., Basawapatna, F., Grover, R. (2015), Gutierrez, K., & Repenning, N. Scalable Game Design : A strategy to bring systemic Computer Science Education to schools through game design and simulation creation. ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 15(2), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.1145/2700517
Shute, V. J., Sun, C., & Asbell-Clarke, J. (2017). Demystifying computational thinking. Educational Research Review, 22, 142–158. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2017.09.003