Why Coding and Computational Thinking Are Not The Same Thing

I made a CD player. You know, like the default program from Windows 98 that lets you control a CD? Except mine was blue with yellow flames. It was 9th grade and I used a little language called Visual Basic to get things done. After about a semester though, I realized that this was an utterly pointless exercise, and instead self-taught myself Photoshop 7.0 resulting in a final grade of a C-. My entire life has involved technology, and it is something that I am comfortable exploring, analyzing, and building, yet unless there is a purpose, it is an utterly pointless experience.

When I read this article written by Gary Stager Ph.D, I realize something very powerful about technology, purpose, and what role coding, programing, and computer science have in the K-8 classroom. His article was a huge breakthrough for me, because it made something very clear to me and that is

Coding and Computational Thinking are NOT the same thing!


When assessing technology’s role in the classroom, I try to be authentic. I believe that I am thoughtful, strategic, and while I try to be a trailblazer, I do not subscribe to buzzword name dropping  trends, or as Adam Bellow calls it, “Buzzword Bingo.” It is with this mindset that I worked with a team of educators and administrators to look at how coding could be intentional, integrated, and directly support curricular goals. It therefore could not be integrated in a way that caters to 5% of students, or 5% of curriculum. It had, like my entire educational technology program, to be able to be integrated by any student in any subject in an way they could come up with. This is why I chose to use coding to support literacy and language development through the lens of story telling and visual communication. This is also why I call it coding, and specifically not programming, although “Programming in the Primaries” is such a catchy title. It is also because coding is not programing, or computer science.

It is therefore unfortunate that in the spirt of defending the complex, sophisticated, and versatile abilities of computational thinking, that we must box in coding to mathematical anything.

As I build, and refine our “Coding Your Story” program at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in 1st and 2nd grade with Sam Patterson Ed.D, I have been writing about the various stages of the experience. It was therefore very exciting to hear from Brian Aspinall on one of my previous articles.  I welcome a dialogue that I hope will take both us and others to a deeper and more profound appreciation for coding.

So why storytelling? Because we do it EVERY day. It the fabric of life, and it’s called communication. It’s not taught in grade school, and it’s not until college that you could take a course with the word “communication” in it. The travesty of this is that we support the academic and intellectual advancements of our students who then in many cases grow up into very smart adults that lack proper skills to communicate, present, collaborate, and worst of all cooperate. Coding is simply a vehicle to help develop these critical skills in a way that also offers students the challenges involved in sequence, syntax, and process.

In response to Brian Aspinall’s comments

“While I appreciate your message for the positive aspect of coding, I feel strongly that you have only “scratched” the surface. Suggesting coding is “nothing but a means to tell a story” is the most trivial way to describe one form of computational thinking. Narrative coding is a fantastic entry point, but the level of deep thinking required to solve problems with coding far exceeds that of simple animations. Scratch has been around for over a decade to promote peers, passion, play and projects. It is a natural fit to mathematics so thank you for the literacy awareness too. I struggle with coding being a hobby or profession as if we have such a pendulum that no middle ground exists. Maybe that is a systematic problem in education.Thank you for raising more of an awareness to coding. I’d love to chat further.”

As far as “scratching” the surface of mainstream application of coding in the classroom, especially in the lower elementary grades, I cannot agree more. If you have access to any tried and true curriculum for 1st through 3rd grade that uses coding to directly support curriculum instead of adding to it, I am eager to read it.

As far as what “coding” is, what is it? I am finding it to be a similar discussion to what “art” is. It’s a circular argument that wasted hundreds of hours when I was in art school. Coding is built on a language. We use language to communicate, inform, and share with others. The highest form of effective communication is being able to inform someone of a topic in a way that has a beginning, middle, and end. This is a story. Have you every had a conversation with someone that seems to never end? If only they learned how to tell an effective and memorable story, a story of Torah, Math, Science, or Shakespeare. I am not sure then how it could be the “most trivial way” except that you take issue with the words nothing more. 

You are correct though that it is a fantastic entry point, which is a common theme in 1st and 2nd grade. If I was using Scratch Jr. to “code our story” with 8th graders and writing about it with words like “innovation” and “beyond limits,” then I think your critique would be more appropriate. I do however take issue with the automatic connection between coding and some sort of magical deep thinking that is so complex that it is only relatable to the realm of mathematics. It is limiting, box-like, and does not do justice to the power of coding, programing, and computational thinking, all of which, in my opinion, have their greatest impact today (and possibly in history) via social technology which is in fact millions of people telling their story.

I, too,struggle with coding being either a hobby or a profession with no middle ground. This is why I felt literacy was a great curricular medium as it has a longer reach than math and science. I did not in any way mean to belittle Science and Math or coding’s relationship to them. I was aspiring to think out of the box, because after over a year of research I found that it is best to say there is no box, or create a box of your own. Thank you for challenging my thinking. I admire your work, look to you for insight, and look forward to continuing this conversation.


3 thoughts on “Why Coding and Computational Thinking Are Not The Same Thing

  1. Have you read Jeannette Wing’s work on Computational Thinking?

    She suggests that computational thinking is a mindset about problem solving using a variety of strategies combined with the power of technology. In other words Computational Thinking = Critical Thinking + Computing Power. Papert also said it long before her, in the 70s and 80s.

    Based on this definition, coding would be a subset. Building structures in Minecraft would also be computational thinking. Crunching data in a spreadsheet to build graphs would be computational thinking. Developing a green screen movie to achieve specific goals would count as computational thinking. Solving problems in new ways using the power of technology is computational thinking. CT may, or may not, involve coding and is more about process, system design and thinking in big spaces.

    The Hour of Code did a great job to raise awareness about coding, but the notion of solving puzzles and moving Minecraft Steve around a screen rarely qualifies as computational thinking. It is an excellent entry point, not a destination, but many people stop there. So many coding “apps” are scripted and procedural to teach concepts of computer science that they limit any room for deep thinking. Rather than suggesting “automatic connection between coding and some sort of magical deep thinking” I’m suggesting the opposite with many “coding” apps we have today. I look forward to the day we leave video comments so the message is more clear :-).

    In my world, I program solutions to authentic problems. I am currently working on a project known as because I want to shift the focus from grades to authentic feedback. I code in my spare time because I want to build a tool to help reform education. Sure, a shameless plug, but also an example of how coding is also more than solving puzzles.

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