Thinking computationally

Thinking computationally is not programming. It is not even thinking like a computer, as computers do not, and cannot, think.

Simply put, programming tells a computer what to do and how to do it. Computational thinking enables you to work out exactly what to tell the computer to do.

For example, if you agree to meet your friends somewhere you have never been before, you would probably plan your route before you step out of your house. You might consider the routes available and which route is ‘best’ - this might be the route that is the shortest, the quickest, or the one which goes past your favourite shop on the way. You'd then follow the step-by-step directions to get there. In this case, the planning part is like computational thinking, and following the directions is like programming.

Being able to turn a complex problem into one we can easily understand is a skill that is extremely useful. In fact, it's a skill you already have and probably use every day.

For example, it might be that you need to decide what to do with your group of friends. If all of you like different things, you would need to decide:

  • what you could do
  • where you could go
  • who wants to do what
  • what you have previously done that has been a success in the past
  • how much money you have and the cost of any of the options
  • what the weather might be doing
  • how much time you have

From this information, you and your friends could decide more easily where to go and what to do – in order to keep most of your friends happy. You could also use a computer to help you to collect and analyse the data to devise the best solution to the problem, both now and if it arose again in the future, if you wished.

Another example might occur when playing a videogame. Depending on the game, in order to complete a level you would need to know:

  • what items you need to collect, how you can collect them, and how long you have in which to collect them
  • where the exit is and the best route to reach it in the quickest time possible
  • what kinds of enemies there are and their weak points

From these details you can work out a strategy for completing the level in the most efficient way.

If you were to create your own computer game, these are exactly the types of questions you would need to think about and answer before you were able to program your game.

In a videogame a player must consider various factors from the beginning when deciding how they will play. These factors include time, items, enemies, exit and route.

Both of the above are examples of where computational thinking has been used to solve a complex problem:

  • each complex problem was broken down into several small decisions and steps (eg where to go, how to complete the level – decomposition)
  • only the relevant details were focused on (eg weather, location of exit – abstraction)
  • knowledge of previous similar problems was used (pattern recognition...
  • ...to work out a step by step plan of action (algorithms)
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