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Using Computational Thinking in a Modern Language Classroom

Our French teacher Isabelle Wolfe has written a thought-provoking article for the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS), where she discusses ‘Using Computational Thinking in a Modern Language Classroom’ and explains the four-step process.

Computational Thinking describes the thought process of formulating problems and their solutions in a way that can be carried out by a computer. More than just a classroom strategy, it is also a life skill that our students can learn to solve any problems inside or outside the classroom. In this article, I will endeavour to explain the four stages in this process as well as giving a specific example to illustrate how I implement this process in my modern language classroom.

At the International School of Aberdeen, where I teach French, as a way to develop integration of Computational Thinking across the K-12 curriculum in different subjects, we have started a monthly podcast featuring teachers called “CT Pod”. Feel free to listen in

Computational thinking involves four steps, the first one being decomposition which is often regarded as the most difficult one. This step consists in breaking down the problem into manageable parts. The problem is presented as a task that will be extremely difficult to overcome. Actually, the most daunting this task is presented, the better the thought process led by the students will be rewarding. When a lesson plan uses the Understanding by Design Framework, this “problem” that is presented is the outcome of a unit or a couple of lessons. The final assessment will essentially be this language focus introduced in this problem in this stage. As an example, in a modern language classroom, it could be a skill or a concept such as “I am learning to use the past tense, J’apprends le passé composé”. For most Middle Schoolers who are just familiar with the present tense, this learning objective is presented as a problem that they have no idea of how to tackle it and more importantly to solve it. With guidance, students will then break this problem with the teacher by leading the discussion by asking questions such as “what is a tense?” “what is a verb?” “how many groups of verbs do you know?” “what is the past?” what is a regular verb?” “why is the past tense called compound past in French” “what do you think it means?” etc. Little by little, the students feel less anxious and more comfortable solving the problem.

The second step is pattern recognition which implies looking at similarities and differences. Students are presented with various sentences or paragraphs including the learning outcome and without much guidance from the teacher will be able to define a rule or an appropriate process that needs to be followed in order to achieve the outcome. It’s always very useful to colour code the similarities. Going back to the example of the past tense, in this lesson, students will be presented with sentences in the present tense and in the past with the same verbs and a variety of verbs (regular and irregular). Students will then highlight the similarities in one colour and in another the differences. Colour coding is an example of implementing pattern recognition but other methods such as the use of Venn diagrams can also be very effective.

The third step is abstraction and is probably the most important one. Abstraction consists in generalising the model, which is essentially extracting the general rule without focusing on the details. Here in the example of the past tense, abstraction will consist in giving the general rule of an auxiliary followed by the verb. However, we would not go into the details of regular and irregular past participles for example.

Finally, the last stage is the algorithm which is writing a set of instructions that needs to be followed in order to solve our problem, similar to a recipe. In the example of the past tense, the students will probably first write that it is important to look at the verb we need to conjugate so that we know if it is regular or not, then secondly to conjugate the auxiliary, and so on… This algorithm can be referred to by the students as a go-to resource when they are in doubt. As it is quite succinct with only a few steps written in short bullet points, it is very quick and easy to check the algorithm when in doubt.

It is very important to note that all these steps are student-led so that the students take ownership of the whole process and make the task meaningful. Computational Thinking can be applied across all subjects and grades. It is vital that the students are familiar with the terminology so that there is consistency throughout the process with any learning outcome to be achieved and in any settings. In order to achieve this, computational thinking could be included in the curriculum as a school-based strategy. Use of icons and visual displays throughout the school could also reinforce this wide-spread implementation and familiarisation of that thought process.

Computational Thinking has had many positive impacts in my modern language classroom. Firstly, it reinforced the student-led process and therefore the ownership by the students of their learnings. Secondly, it has definitely had a positive consequence on the time taken to achieve the learning outcomes. Computational thinking has also had benefits in the time taken to grasp new concepts. I have found that the students also have adopted a different mindset and look forward to embark on difficult concepts. With the process of computational thinking, teachers offer a safe and secure environment as students know that the algorithm they have designed can be referred to if needed.

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