Intuition or Ignorance: why teach computational thinking?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I was learning about the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU) on my course training me to be a teacher of computer science.

I did not need to know about the workings of a CPU during my career. Perhaps the only time I considered a CPU was when I was buying a new computer. And even then I did not need to know much more than the relative speeds and power of the CPUs available.

So I was pleased to read this article “Computing is too easy” which makes the case for why educators need to add the study of computational thinking to the school curriculum. And it makes a lot of sense to me. I am lucky enough that I learnt to use computers when knowledge of the command line, knowledge of roughly how programs work was necessary to get the best out of computers. So teaching something about how computers actually work, and why they sometimes don’t work and what limitations they have and what power they have should contribute to the knowledge base of a well educated student.

And I understand the other point of view, put to me forcefully by my boss. All she wanted was the computer to do something. Why couldn’t it just do what she needed to do? She wanted a hammer to do a job, a car to do its job and a computer to do its job too. Was she asking too much? And my patient explanation of a particular computing quirk was just dismissed: “make it work and then come back to me.”

And of course I do prefer to use the modern shrink wrapped operating systems and shiny new laptops and smartphones. I switch them on and they enable me to do stuff. So much better than the old Win 3.11 for Workgroups and DOS 6.22. Though I do dislike Apple computers because they are too shiny and easy, and encourage people to know nothing about the Mac they are using, they just use it. For example the Daily Mirror puts out this explanation of how to turn off a default on your iPhone that most people probably never knew was there because they had just taken the thing out the box, switched it on and then gleefully tell everyone how intuitive it is to use. No, Mac’s infantilise you, more than PCs, at any rate.

In summary: there seems to be two schools of thought. Those who want to know more about their computers so they can understand them, control them, and make informed decisions and those who want to use them as a tool to achieve something.

And this argument will rumble on and on. I think it has more to do with personality than rationality.

My position is that a computer is a too complex and multi-faceted tool to operate like a hammer. But if you want to retain the defaults set for you by someone who makes decisions about things you have chosen not to be aware of, then don’t blame them when some of those decisions come back to bite you or do things you wouldn’t opt for. Do not swap intuitive interfaces for ignorance! But if you do, take responsibility for your choice of ignorance and blame yourself.

Which is why I am willing to teach computer science.

Hopefully I can make a little bit of difference. Hopefully I might contribute to some children’s overall level of education by adding some awareness of how computers actually work.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.