Pīkau 5: Computational thinking the international perspective

Why this matters

Many of the resources that are useful for computational thinking are international, and you’re likely to come across slightly different ways of talking about the topic when looking at material from overseas. It will also help you to see how our curriculum lines up with those used elsewhere.


Links to existing knowledge

You might already know some of this. This builds on the previous pīkau about computational thinking, so you may recognise some of the links between how it is defined in the New Zealand Curriculum, and how it is described internationally.

A broader view of what computational thinking is

If you share some characteristics with Mahuika, you might be interested in how what we're learning about fits into the bigger picture. Let’s start by exploring the origins of the term computational thinking in education.

Download the transcript for this video.

Extra reading

Wing's (2006) view on Computational Thinking

Activity - Try the sorting network with students

Try the sorting network with students

The following video shows an activity that is popular with students, and only needs chalk (or masking tape), some paper, and some space in the playground or classroom to try out. It provides a concrete illustration of the ideas of computational thinking.

Download the transcript for this video.

You can try using a sorting network with your students!

Use this lesson plan and all the details from CS Unplugged.

If your students are engaged with this activity, they are exercising many elements of computational thinking; there are also explanations at the end of the lesson plan in the link above showing the mapping to computational thinking.



The sorting network can be used to put any six things in order.

  • If your class is learning about the life cycle of the butterfly the order could be egg, hatchling caterpillar, large caterpillar, building a cocoon, cocoon, butterfly.
  • If you are teaching about how fractions relate to each other students could order a half, three quarters, five sixteenths, a third, etc.
  • Young students can order physical objects by size, for example, a paperclip, an eraser, a pencil, a whiteboard marker, a book, a scrapbook.

Just make sure the discussion is had before the activity to clarify the expected order (which comes first, the butterfly that lays the egg, or the egg?), and which direction the order will run in (biggest to the left or to the right?). It is also recommended the agreed order is displayed in a prominent position for easy referral during the activity.

How computational thinking is taught in other countries

If you're like Māui, you might be curious about how other people are getting started teaching computational thinking. Let’s explore how computational thinking appears in the context of overseas curricula.

Download the transcript for this video.

The definitions in the previous video are available online:

The first use of the term “Computational Thinking” Activity is generally attributed to Seymour Papert who used it in 1980 and 1986 publications. Papert is known for developing the programming language Logo. He was a student of Piaget, who is well known for contribution to theories about education.

Other ways of looking at computational thinking

Jeanette Wing said that computational thinking is “Thinking like a Computer Scientist”. But what areas does computer science cover? The following video illustrates the breadth of computer science by looking at the world’s most popular website, which earns billions of dollars, yet its main interface is just one textbox and a button.

Download the transcript for this video.

What’s the relationship to computer programming?

From the previous page we can see that there are many views on what computational thinking is, although they all are essentially the same idea. One question that comes up is whether you need to have a focus on computer programming to be doing computational thinking. The following video explores this question.

This is a longer video (10 minutes). We’ve included it because it highlights how the ‘unplugged’ demonstrations relate directly to programming computers. Moving from doing unplugged activities onto programming computers reinforces the learning in an authentic context. Computers will really let you know if you’ve got something wrong in your code, humans can be more forgiving. So make yourself a coffee, sit back, and enjoy.

Download the transcript for this video.

The Scratch program developed in the previous video can be accessed directly online. Feel free to "remix" it and play around - you can't break anything! Once in Scratch, click on the ‘see inside’ icon in the top right hand side of the screen to see the actual code.

Bringing it all together

So what does “Think like a computer scientist” really mean? Watch this video to find out how this all ties together.

Download the transcript for this video.

Wrapping up and where to next

Download the transcript for this video.

The two pīkau/toolkits on computational thinking have given an overview of the ideas around computational thinking, including how it’s viewed around the world. These ideas may still be very new to you, but there are plenty of opportunities ahead to explore computational thinking as you engage with further pīkau/toolkits --- and you’ll be able to explore what programming is (which is a key ingredient in computational thinking).

Extra videos and readings

Here are three other videos showing the sorting network in action

Part 2 Sorting Networks

Computer Science Unplugged - Part 2 Sorting Networks - 2005

YouTube video of the sorting network being demonstrated indoors using tape.

Download the transcript for this video.

Part 7: Sorting networks

Computer Science Unplugged: The show. Part 7: Sorting networks 

YouTube video of the sorting network being demonstrated using a mat (5 mins)

Download the transcript for this video.

Sorting networks (Sample classroom lesson)

Computer Science Unplugged - Sorting networks (sample classroom lesson)

YouTube video of the sorting network being demonstrated outside using chalk (5 mins):

Download the transcript for this video.

Jeannette Wing: Computational Thinking 

The general idea of computational thinking is discussed in this YouTube video. This video has been added into extra videos and resources, as optional viewing, because it is 94 minutes long.

Facilitation notes

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


  • Barefoot computing (England) information on CT (teachers can get free access to read other material on their site).
  • Google’s free course on computational thinking
  • Computational Thinking in K--12: A Review of the State of the Field. Grover, S., & Pea, R. (2013). Educational Researcher, 42(1), 38–43.Wing, J. M. (2006).
  • Computational thinking. J. Wing (2006). Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 33–35.