tional problem solving in abstracted
and inauthentic ways?
With rapid changes happening
in both computing and computing
education landscapes, we have an opportunity to reconsider how students
learn computing. Young learners
have the capacity to develop computational products that have authentic
impact in their lives from the moment they begin to code. They simply
need contexts that allow them to have
such impact. Computational action
starts to define what these contexts
should look like. With more computing instructors coming online, we
have a unique opportunity to work
with them as they develop skills and
practices necessary to engage in computational action with their students.
We are excited about a world in which
young learners see the world as full
of opportunities for them to digitally
create the future they (and we) want
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and how do students learn? Educational Psychology
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building apps to solve local problems. (Mar. 29, 2016);
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minds: Critical computational literacy as a pedagogy
of resistance. Equity & Excellence in Education 49, 4
(Apr. 2016), 480–492.
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Sources of early interest in science. International
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narrative-driven curriculum to spark middle school
girls’ interest in computational activities. Journal of
the Learning Sciences 26, 3 (Mar. 2017); doi.org/10.108
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Mike Tissenbaum ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is
Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA.
Josh Sheldon ( email@example.com) is Associate Director,
App Inventor, at MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Hal Abelson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is Class of 1922 Professor
of Computer Science and Engineering in the Department
of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.
Cambridge, MA, USA.
Copyright held by authors.
shows the transformational potential
computational action can have.
Building on the success of the
Dharavi girls and other young learn-
ers like them, we have begun devel-
oping formal computing curricula
that incorporate the computational
action model. Recently, working with
teachers at a large, extremely diverse,
urban, U.S. high school, we created a
10-week computing curriculum with
App Inventor. In this curriculum,
students developed computing solu-
tions to an issue that was personally
relevant and meaningful to them and
their community: raising awareness
and cleaning up the local riverway.
Exit interviews highlighted positive
changes in the students’ perceptions
of their own computational identi-
ties and digital empowerment. From
not believing themselves capable of
building mobile apps at all, they real-
ized they could not only build apps,
but that their designs could have sig-
nificant real-world impact. Many stu-
dents also expressed excitement to
build new apps in the future.
Facilitating this kind of learner-driven and action-focused computing
education requires a reexamination
of how we provide support for learners. It also poses new challenges for
teachers. Students need scaffolding
in the design process to help them
understand how to decompose their
apps into manageable and buildable
parts. Importantly, teachers need
to be comfortable in complex, real-world situations that do not have a
predefined solution. While this
should not require teachers to learn
more about programming functionally, it will require them to be more
flexible in how it is applied. It will require new strategies for helping students discover solutions on their own
(rather than giving them the answer),
and it will require new ways of assessing student work. Recognizing these
pedagogical shifts means we must
embrace new educational approaches as we test and refine our theories
on computational action.
Learners Recognize Opportunities
to Apply Computing, then
Design and Build Solutions
Having students drive their learn-
ing or problem-solving process is
not a new idea in education. Prob-
lem-based learning (see for example
Hmelo-Silver3) has been increasingly
used in science and engineering edu-
cation over the past two decades. How-
ever, putting the products students
design into their communities has
been a persistent challenge. Through
the proliferation of mobile and ubiq-
uitous computing, we are beginning
to realize this potential.
By focusing on computational action instead of computational thinking, we engage kids in meaningful
projects rather than canned exercises. Papert argued that in the process
of developing personally meaningful projects, students would be able
to forge ideas and would learn the
necessary coding elements by addressing challenges as they naturally
7 This is similar to how much
programming and computational solution building works in the professional world. People from all occupations and avocations alike come up
with “projects” they want to build for
which computer programs are necessary. These people plan ahead and begin building, but inevitably, obstacles
arise. These computer programmers,
professionals and amateurs, computer scientists, engineers, scientists, and many others, find answers
to those problems within the broader
community of programmers (by asking colleagues directly or through
sites such as StackOverflow). If this
is the how computing happens in
the real world, why is the educational
system so often focused on students
learning computing and computa-
By focusing on
action instead of
thinking, we engage
kids in meaningful
projects rather than