4.1.2 Robert Tinker, Concord Consortium

The Concord Consortium is a non-profit research and technology development group that focuses on applying technology to improve learning at different grades. Robert Tinker, the founder of the Concord Consortium, argued that computational efforts in K-12 should be integrated around a science focus rather than a focus on either mathematics or engineering.

Elaborating on this argument, he suggested that computational thinking offers an alternative new way of finding out about the world, which is important for citizenship, for future work, and for professionals of all types. Nevertheless, he believes that neither the computer science community nor the education community has yet clearly articulated the essence of computational thinking. As usually presented, computational thinking involves abstractions upon abstractions, which are difficult to make concrete.

At the core of computational thinking, Tinker argued, is the ability to break big problems into smaller problems until one can automate the solutions of those smaller problems for rapid response. (It is for this reason that Tinker believes that engineering is not an appropriate integrating focus for attempts to teach computational thinking—engineering taught at the K-12 level is not particularly amenable to decomposition.) This core, he argued, indicates a possible route for introducing computational thinking into K-12 education.

Tinker’s view is that science is the right focus because modern science often uses computational models that are based on scientific principles and whose use depends on visualizations. Understanding these models requires computational thinking—scientific models and visualizations allow students to visualize the computations that are going on in near real time. Tinker noted that students learn better by seeing models and interacting with them, and that by exploring the model in a spirit of inquiry, they learn about the science in the model in much the same way that scientists learn about nature by using the scientific method. He argued that students can learn complicated, deep concepts this way rather than through the more “off-putting” and often confusing approach of formalistic equations.

Tinker proposed an approach across the K-12 curriculum that uses simple models of scientific concepts such as temperature, light, and force to teach computational thinking. A progression of concepts could start in early elementary grades with basic ideas such as “there are numbers associated with things you observe.” (See Figure 2.1.) In later grades, students might manipulate and refine models to reflect more sophisticated understanding of the concepts represented in the models. Finally, in high

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