Using a student-centered approach to promote computational thinking

How can teachers engage students in learning problem-solving skills across the curriculum? One program aims to teach computational thinking (CT) and coding skills in a problem-centered approach, promoting student-centered learning design. In the process, students develop perseverance and creativity, while teachers connect their learning to professional standards aligned with ISTE micro-credentials.

Tony Lam, Head of Mathematics at Marymount Primary School in Hong Kong, recognized the mindset shift needed to create a student-centred coding experience. With a learner-centered approach to directly instructing students to develop computer programs step-by-step, he encourages students to solve problems through active learning.

Lam, who started learning to code six years ago, honed his skills at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Master Trainer Program in Boston, an experience sponsored by his school and supported by CoolThink@JC. She now hosts professional development workshops and class demonstrations for other teachers in Hong Kong. EdSurge recently spoke with Lam about her experience as a teacher leader at CoolThink@JC InnoCommunity, a community supported by more than 50 frontline and dedicated teachers serving more than 100 elementary schools.

EdSurge. How would you describe the adoption of the CoolThink curriculum for your school?

Lam. Marymount, an all-girls school, was one of the first primary schools in Hong Kong to implement the CoolThink curriculum. Professors and lecturers from MIT and the Education University of Hong Kong (EDUHK) provided the first group of teachers with 78 hours of training to explore and learn the CoolThink curriculum. EDUHK held regular workshops to inform teachers about any developments and changes in the programme.

The CoolThink curriculum offers a new element to our school’s general programs and provides new opportunities for girls to become digital makers and creators by learning to code. CoolThink is an important STEM education event in Hong Kong, providing a comprehensive and proven framework for computational thinking and coding education. CoolThink’s mission to prepare students’ computational thinking skills—critical thinking, problem solving, and empowerment—are essential to digital literacy in today’s AI-powered world, where the ability to think critically and determine fact from fiction is critical. AI or ChatGPT won’t replace you anytime soon, but someone using AI will.

As we got used to the structure of the CoolThink curriculum, we adapted some aspects, such as topics and difficulty levels, to fit the learning needs and interests of our students. For example, we created a unit called Mascot Random Generator, where students create an app that can randomly generate one of six mascots for school values, or they can customize the app to randomly generate anything, like pop stars or favorite foods. : Another example is the collaboration between the technology and math panels, which guides students to create arithmetic programs to solve specific problems, such as finding the greatest common factor.

Eventually, I began training trainers and supporting others to learn the CoolThink curriculum. We partnered with the Hong Kong Education Bureau and held teacher workshops to share our experiences. We also hosted student workshops in other schools that had not yet joined the CoolThink project to provide learning opportunities for students and to show teachers how CoolThink lessons work. We have partnered with the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node to provide professional development for teachers in blended learning. It is critical to have more teaching mentors so that the teacher-learner community continues to grow and ensure the continued development of computational thinking and coding education.

How do teachers and students benefit from a problem-based coding curriculum?

This curriculum has changed the way I think about learning. CoolThink pedagogy emphasizes play, think, code, reflect. We encourage students to explore the apps they will eventually create. We guide them to observe, think about the most important features, and solve the problem before they start coding. The CoolThink curriculum is motivating and interactive, inspiring students to create, experiment, and debug with less guidance from teachers.

Such a shift in thinking may ultimately lead to a more innovative teaching and learning approach in other areas. I now replicate the same framework in my math classes. Instead of just drilling math problems, I invite students to share what math concepts they applied through the games they created.

CoolThink provides equal access and learning opportunities to students regardless of their background, especially from low-income and ethnic minority groups. For example, one of our students did not excel in the traditional curriculum despite being very creative and logical. But when we introduced the CoolThink curriculum to our school, he did a lot of research online to learn and create different apps. He joined coding competitions and won several awards. Learning to code also inspired him to study math and art. He now plans to attend university and become a scientist.

The CoolThink pedagogy. Image credit: CoolThink

How does CoolThink help bridge the digital divide and prepare students for the future?

In the initial phase, CoolThink provides assistance to schools by hiring additional teaching assistants and acquiring digital devices, allowing students from different social classes to have equal access to equipment and learning resources. A CoolThink YouTube channel with over 100 learning videos is available for Cantonese students. CoolThink provides students with equal access to information and resources so that all students can become developers.

CoolThink prepares students in multiple ways by helping them acquire the fundamentals of computational thinking and build an early foundation in programming languages. This helps students become more self-sufficient learners in coding and expand their career choices in STEM-related fields. CT practices, such as testing and debugging, and being incremental and iterative, also foster their tenacious spirit in problem solving. CoolThink prepares students for entrepreneurship by empowering them with confidence and creativity, transforming students from digital consumers to digital creators.

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