What is computational thinking? A guide to an essential 21st century skill.

Girl laughing at computer sitting at dining room table

Parents, teachers, and students hear the term “21st century skills” thrown around a lot, and (with good reason) computational thinking is often part of that conversation. So, let’s take a closer look at this versatile skill set and get past the buzzwords.

First, you can probably guess the core meaning—“comp,” as in “computer” and “compute,” right? 

Correct! Computational thinking relates to the ability to understand and leverage technology for all kinds of purposes. 

We all know computers are capable of amazing things, but the key to understanding not only how they work but what they’re capable of lies in more organic brain power: think of computational thinking as a techie thinking cap!

These STEM statistics don’t lie: there’s a tremendous demand for a workforce skilled in computational thinking...so how can we prepare the next generation to meet it? Education, engagement, and awareness are all a part of making sure kids are ready to take the 21st century by storm.

Computational thinking definition

Computational thinking refers to strategic thought and problem-solving through algorithms or other steps that could be completed by a computer.

In other words, thinking and acting like a computer scientist interacting with technology. 

What’s an algorithm? Think of an algorithm as step-by-step instructions that create a pattern or set outcome through coding and present the information in a way humans can understand.

If that sounds like the type of thinking that has a wide range of applications within and beyond the technology world, that’s because it absolutely is. 

It’s the kind of thinking that breaks things down into parts, refines processes to become more efficient, and identifies helpful patterns.

Some examples of computational thinking include developing a chess strategy, making and reading maps, and organizing a long to-do list into manageable daily tasks. It’s everywhere in daily life, so why not build this mental muscle? 

Benefits of computational thinking

To understand the benefits of computational thinking, it’s important to first identify its four widely accepted subsets: pattern recognition, decomposition, abstraction, and algorithm design. Each of these areas is valuable in and of themselves, but together, they make a particularly useful tool for kids to apply in school, future careers, and life in general. 

Pattern recognition

What’s similar? What’s different? How can a creative solution incorporate lessons learned? All of this relates directly to pattern recognition.

Programmers use pattern recognition all the time to find the most efficient means of solving problems, and it’s essential to fields like data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. 

Efficient, insightful pattern recognition is beneficial to kids whether they’re improving the user experience of the latest app or leveling up their chess game. 

Decomposition 

This area of computational thinking is all about taking things apart, so tinkerers rejoice! Budding engineers can delight in finding the hands-on applications of this mindset as they build and grow their understanding of complex material one step at a time.

If your child is this type of learner, perhaps they should join a robotics club or team at school! Not only do organizations like FIRST Robotics provide fun opportunities for competition, they offer a great collaborative environment in which these thinking skills can be nurtured and grow. 

Outside of STEM, decomposition computational skills come in handy when learning a new language, tackling societal issues, and understanding the far-reaching impacts of historical events. So, even if your child is more humanities-oriented, they can still apply this mindset in a way that’s meaningful to them. 

Abstraction

Relevant information only, please. Abstraction, in the context of computational thinking, means focusing only on the most essential components of an idea.

Whether in perfecting a line of code or editing a written masterpiece, abstraction comes in handy when kids need to focus without getting lost in the weeds.  

You’ll see this in action when giving the best possible directions or in really any form of communication that values efficiency. Knowing how to communicate only the essentials without expending extra time or resources is crucial in fields within STEM and beyond. 

These skills are essential to entrepreneurs and budding business moguls; after all, negotiating and winning over investors requires outstanding communication. Whether kids are making a pitch or looking to build an organization, computational thinking through abstraction is a great capacity to practice. 

Algorithm design

Work smarter, not harder, right? That’s what algorithm design is all about: finding the fastest, most streamlined means of achieving a desired result.

Thank goodness algorithms exist, otherwise the internet and kitchens everywhere would be a mess. They organize information such that it can be put to the most useful application, like finding exactly what you’re looking for in Google or recreating grandma’s famous lasagna without getting lost along the way. 

Of course, learning about coding algorithms is an excellent way to start exploring computer science, and they’re a lot more straightforward than many coding newbies believe! The best programming languages for beginners offer simple introductions to algorithms, and it’s so exciting to watch as formulas of 1’s and 0’s transform into an interactive game, website, or app.

Learn computational thinking with code!

To start building those computational thinking skills, exploring programming is a surefire way to do it. Of course, this is just one of many reasons why kids should learn to code.

If you or your child need an extra incentive, though, it lies in these incredibly versatile thinking skills! The mindset and experience needed to succeed as a programmer has value well outside the STEM world. 

By building their computational thinking, kids will become more effective communicators, planners, critical thinkers, and problem-solvers. They’ll see that coding has all kinds of exciting applications and connections to other topics they love. 

So what are you waiting for? There are plenty of great coding courses to help you get started today!

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains.