Pīkau 3: What is computational thinking for DT?

Why this matters

The term “computational thinking” comes up a lot in the new digital technologies learning area. Does this mean that we’re teaching students how to think like a computer? Or is it all about writing computer programs? Let’s find out more.

Challenge: If you had to find an envelope in an unsorted list of 100, how many envelopes would you expect to have to look at? On average? In the worst case? In the best case?

What you’re doing here is evaluating an algorithm. We’ll define algorithms more carefully later on, but an algorithm is essentially the process that you choose to use to solve a problem. With an unsorted pile of envelopes, any process will involve going through all of the envelopes!

This is just one idea for an algorithm that speeds up the time it takes to get people onto a plane. You might like to explore other ideas that people have tried, such as loading “window-middle-aisle”, or by groups.

Activity: The card-sorting race

Try this with your students.

  • Give each group of three students one pile of about 50 numbers or words.
  • Ask them to sort the pile into order as quickly a possible.
  • Tell the groups they also need to figure out how they can check that the result is correct. (Or you could get one team to check another team’s results – any two adjacent cards that are out of order means it’s not correct.)
  • You could have the groups race each other.
  • See what strategies groups develop to sort the pile as quickly as possible.

Note that there isn’t a “right” way of doing this, but some methods will be faster than others, and it’s in the reflection on how they did it that computational thinking is happening.

Links to existing knowledge

Chances are that you’ve already encountered examples of computational thinking in your everyday life. The video below describes some situations that might be familiar!

Defining Computational Thinking

The way computational thinking is framed in the New Zealand Curriculum

Watch this video to explore some of the big ideas that keep coming up under computational thinking in the new curriculum.

Watch this example of two different algorithms being used to find a book in a library.

Do both strategies for finding a book work? Why is Slowcoach Slade’s approach better than Speedy Spencer’s? How much better is it? Will Bozo the clown ever find the book?

This video shows why the topics in computational thinking apply to all digital devices.

Activity: The phone book challenge

How long does it take to find a number in your local phone book if you’re given the name of the person? How long does it take your students? You could have races to see what the shortest time is for finding a randomly chosen name.

Implementing computational thinking in New Zealand

Caitlin Duncan has been studying how computational thinking can be taught in Implementing computational thinking in New Zealand schools for some years. In this interview we find out what she has learned in the process.


In this pīkau, you have had a short introduction to the idea of computational thinking.

In the next pīkau | toolkit on computational thinking you will delve into more detail and explore an international view of the concept. So far we’ve just given a taste of what computational thinking is about; your understanding of computational thinking will build with each pīkau.

References and acknowledgements

Interview with Tim Bell in 2016 about the idea of computational thinking (this was before computational thinking was named as part of the curriculum):

Facilitation notes

If you are working through this pīkau as a group feel free to download and use these facilitation notes: