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. 


Building, Making, Programing in 2016

Higher-Order thinking skills rock. While I can still name off all 50 states, the preamble, and tell you the process of mitosis, I still struggle to appreciate the value in memorizing information. That is unless that information directly supports something bigger than itself. Because of this, I tend to gravitate towards anything that can challenge students curiosity and desire to figure something out, especially if this thing is really complicated. Then we will are able to provide learners with exciting and engaging avenues to develop skills to solve problems, interact with people, and be thoughtful and caring. Then, I won’t mind that they can just Google who wrote the Gettysburg Address.
Here is a list of apps and devices that are great ways to develop learner’s higher-order thinking skills (problem-solving, critical thinking, sequence, and syntax), and beyond.
1. Osomo – ($$) This device uses the iPad to challenge learners to solve puzzles. These puzzles, come in the form of words, shapes, and even challenge learners to draw their own puzzles to solve. (My kids love this.)
2. Sphero – ($$$) These devices can be controlled via an app and programmed using an app called Tickle to challenge learners on so many levels. spatial understanding, distance, movement, velocity, not to mention trendy skills like coding!
3. Little Bits – ($$$) This product is a plug and play (literally) engineering set that lets learners build out as complex of a circuit as they can imagine. Little Bits pushes just about every critical thinking skills to the max. “If it’s broke, fix it!”, is a perfect mantra for this way of learning.
4. Scratch Jr.  – (Free) This coding app for the iPad (and android) uses blocks to build out a story by programming characters to interact in the with one another. Students can use this app to not only learn basic sequencing skills but also to develop literacy as they learn to communicate a storyline and animate characters.
This is not a new list, nor a complete one, but I believe that I do add an interesting insight into just what makes these devices powerful tools to support classroom learning.

Live Feedback In Elementary English

Imagine struggling to write a persuasive essay and a magical Grammar Angel descends from above blanketing your writing with a glistening frost of feedback and insight into writing.


While we haven’t confirmed any new angel ventures, we do have some magical ways that Google Docs is transforming the elementary classroom. Students in my colleagues 4th grade class are using Google Docs during writer’s workshop so teachers are able to peek into the experiences of writing as a 4th grade student. This experience, full of struggles and inspiring breakthroughs can be difficult to decipher when being handed a hand written draft ready for the dreaded red pen.

In Google Docs teachers can see revision history to look at how, when, and why students arrived at that point in their writing. With comments teachers can interact live, and asynchronously giving students value feedback on their work. Share you work with a peer and experience feedback like never before.

This experience is a great example of a challenge to how we view technology integration. On the SAMR model you might rate this at a Substitution or Augmentation level, but as far as meaningful learning and student centeredness, this is complete redefinition of the writing process.

Bottom line is that this process is simple and within reach of any educator regardless of their level of comfort with technology in the classroom.

21st-Century Competencies, Technology, Technology Integration

What A Little Audio Can Do

There is something powerful about the spoken word. When it’s accompanied by a striking visual it can leave the listener thinking, wondering, looking for more. It is this auditory advantage that can bring amazing life and dynamic to your classroom. It is through such a medium that we can take our student learning to a very new and different place. Recording isn’t new to education, but it has throughout the 20th-Century been mainly a consuming experience. It really isn’t until the mid 2000’s that student production was practical or even really possible in an elementary or middle school classroom. For those that tout experiences of multimedia production in the 90’s and on, its usually safe to assume that the median age of these producers was around 20.

Without name dropping brands and devices, there is something magical about having an all in one filming, editing, and production center all together in your lap. Today, you can do so much more than simply film on site, you can be in post production before you even make it home.

So what are some ways that audio can completely transform your classroom?

Close Reading

Take Book Creator, Explain Everything or any app with recording capability and challenge your students to not just annotate their books but talk about it. Share out those ideas. They can be raw, short, and ready for a response. What if our students could learn not just from a teacher but from their peers deep understanding of content, or even students working towards mastery. Either way, if its constructive both students will benefit.

Audio Book

If you aren’t quite ready to retire powerpoint presentations, at least skip one for a truly awesome experience. Book Creator again will serve as a foundation for the publication. Students can use drawings, props, and royalty free images to develop a storyline that informs the viewer of specific content. Lay audio over to give it an audio-visual experience. If its not enough, let the imagery be the audio buttons to bolster interactivity and try to work in some choice for user experience.


Interested in seeing your students math skills? While I am no math whiz, I know that involving multiple senses and learning modalities will not only increase engagement but it will also boost learning outcomes. Empower students to make their own Khan Academy style videos. Don’t worry they aren’t for you, they are for their peers. Break up your class into levels and challenge the advanced students to teach the students working towards mastery. The best part about it? Students can pause the video, but are still trying to discover how to pause the teacher.

Foreign Languages

What’s the secret to learning a foreign language? Practice. Students tend to pick up reading, writing, and listening skills faster than speaking. This is in part due to a lack of confidence and comfort in speaking a new language. Book Creator to the rescue. Let students record either raw conversations, or have them read, translate, and respond to inserted text on the page. This pushes the student while giving others a great experience to learn from as well.

These are just a few ideas to get the imagination running. Audio has huge benefits not just for sharing content but building students communication skills both written (script writing), and oral (recording). These types of experiences can bring out the best in a quiet student, or one who has fine motor challenges preventing them from writing or even typing. The possibilities are almost endless, and it is with this that I say

A little audio can go a long way.




Art, Technology

How To Measure Innovation


In education today, “innovation” is quite the buzzword. The question is how do you measure it? It’s difficult to measure, mostly because it’s not testable, certainly not with a multiple choice exam. That is because innovation is spontaneity that develops into something amazing. When assessing innovation, I find that the above four questions will help one be honest with their success. Innovation doesn’t always have to be groundbreaking, but it does need to make a difference.

How will you innovate today?

5WaysTheiPadRevolutionizedEducation Slice
iPad, Technology, Technology Integration

5 Ways The iPad Revolutionized Education


The truth is, that it isn’t just the iPad. Tablet technology has revolutionized education. It has such potential to completely transform student learning, when used in a purposeful and thoughtful manner. Bonus #6 is that it’s mobile and agile unlike its laptop cousins. It is in this respect that where and how we learn is only limited to our WiFi access. You can deep sea dive with an iPad. I can’t imagine doing the same thing with a Chromebook or even a Macbook Pro.

Education, Technology, Technology Integration

Learning Is Down! I Mean The Internet.

Can a classroom be considered a 21st-Century learning environment without internet access?

For many of our students, it seems impossible to imagine a life without internet. In school, if it’s not accessed a 1:1 device, it is at the very least via a teacher’s computer or computer lab. The more we experience the power of digital resources, the more we rely on them to support meaningful learning. The question now is how much do we rely on the internet as a tool?

What happens when the internet goes down? Does learning stop?

In the age of digital access and connection, we need to do more than simply use technology in the classroom, we need to command it. Learning cannot cease because the internet is down. It is “setbacks” like these, that reveal a serious challenge in the world of education. Is technology being relied on to teach, or are teachers using it as a method to enhance their classroom learning experiences?

When we assess the quality of technology integration, it is almost impossible to not mention the SAMR model. While many in the world of Edtech are quick to criticize the Substitution Level, I asked Dr. Puentedura his thoughts via Twitter on the topic, and he had this to say:

For many educators, SAMR is the holy grail, a model that validates us. Every educator wants to feel they “redefine” student learning, and there is something about just being a “sub” that carries a stigma.

When I look at models such as SAMR, or TPACK, I see models that are about technology and teachers, but have very little to do with students and their learning  experiences. My criticism against Substitutive technology tasks is not due to their lack of meaningfulness, instead, due to their fragility. When we use technology in a substitutive manner, then the entire learning experience relies on the stability of the tool. Take game based and web 2.0 platforms like Kahoot, Quizlet, and Socrative for example. They can be engaging, effective, fun all while supporting visual learners, give students a sense of control, and contain a competitive element to them.

The challenge with substitutive technology is that if it doesn’t function as we intended, crashing, freezing, or restarting, then so does the learning.

These platforms have their time and place, and who doesn’t love a game based exit ticket instead of a worksheet. Still, if this how we view technology integration, then I think we are doing a disservice to all parties involved. It is for this reason that we as educators should be challenging students to create dynamic and complex products of learning instead of simply consuming information via a digital platform.

Substitution has its place in the classroom, but it should be more than an isolated experience. Instead, it should be a stepping stone for meaningful learning to be achieved.