Computational thinking skills and student-focused instructional strategies are two pillars that support middle school students' engagement and confidence in math and that encourage lifelong learning and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Computational thinking emphasizes the process of problem solving and encourages students to explain their reasoning.1
The ENgagement and Achievement through Computational Thinking (ENACT) partnership, which includes Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and REL Midwest, is working with teachers to develop, test, and refinean approach for integrating computational thinking into the MPS grade 6 math curriculum using student-focused teaching practices. MPS teachers have begun integrating computational thinking and student-focused practices into their math instruction and will work with REL Midwest to refine the strategies as the second school year of implementing ENACT strategies gets underway this summer.
Computational thinking is a problem-solving process that involves breaking down a problem into smaller manageable parts, identifying patterns, and developing algorithms to solve the problem. This process is designed to help students develop deeper math learning as well as skills and mindsets that can unlock pathways into high-wage, in-demand STEM fields.2
Computational thinking strategies
Laura Maly, an MPS mathematics teacher leader, shared how integrating computational thinking strategies has influenced her work this year in numerous ways. "The [ENACT] computational thinking strategies are very prevalent throughout all strands of mathematics and across all of the grade levels that I work with," said Maly. "It is easy to bring the CT [computational thinking] strategies to life when working in mathematics classrooms, both to help focus on the content standards and also to highlight the Standards for Mathematical Practice."
Once students understand computational thinking strategies, they can apply them to a range of problems, both in and outside of the classroom. For example, students can solve many types of problems using decomposition, which involves breaking down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable parts. Another powerful computational thinking strategy that students can apply broadly is pattern recognition, which involves identifying patterns in data or information.
"We all need to be able to recognize patterns all around us, to be able to break large problems up into smaller more do-able chunks, to be able to create a repeatable process for something that we find ourselves doing over and over, and to be able to find a mistake in our own work or in the work of another," continued Maly.
Student-focused practices are another important teaching strategy and a component of the ENACT approach. These practices are designed to elevate student voices, help students see the real-world application of math problems, and develop a student's sense of self as a math scholar.3 A student-focused approach also can promote a growth mindset and help students develop a deeper understanding of the material.4
Student-focused instructional practices
By combining computational thinking and student-focused practices, teachers can create a learning environment that fosters critical thinking, promotes problem-solving skills, and inspires a positive sense of self as a lifelong learner.5 Students can apply computational thinking strategies to a wide range of problems and explain their reasoning to develop a deeper understanding of the material. This approach is designed to promote a growth mindset and prepares students for success in the 21st century workforce.6
Maly observed: "The CT [computational thinking] strategies help students see real-world applications of the processes that will help them use mathematics to solve problems that occur in their authentic contexts. . . Using the CT strategies by name helps me to model for students and for teachers the strategies that we want to see them incorporating into their daily work. Continuing this emphasis over time has the potential for students and teachers to internalize and replicate this work."
Explore the following resources to learn more about the ENACT partnership and the benefits of combining computational thinking and student-focused practices to support middle school students' math engagement.
1 Bartell, T., Wager, A., Edwards, A., Battey, D., Foote, M., & Spencer, J. (2017). Toward a framework for research linking equitable teaching with the standards for mathematical practice. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 48(1), 7–21. https://doi.org/10.5951/jresematheduc.48.1.0007
3 Paunesku, D., & Farrington, C. A. (2020). Measure learning environments, not just students, to support learning and development. Teachers College Record, 122(14), 1–26. https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=23460
4 Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance--A critical literature review. Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED542543
5 Bartell, T., Wager, A., Edwards, A., Battey, D., Foote, M., & Spencer, J. (2017). Toward a framework for research linking equitable teaching with the standards for mathematical practice. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 48(1), 7–21. https://doi.org/10.5951/jresematheduc.48.1.0007