Building blocks of computational thinking: Young children's developing capacities for problem decomposition

AbstractComputational thinking (CT) refers to a range of problem-solving skills applicable to computer science and everyday life. Although recent research in developmental cognitive science suggests mental capacities relevant to CT may emerge quite early in life, research on CT, and computer science education more generally, has made little contact with this literature. As a way to better bridge these fields, we explore the development of problem decomposition, a critical feature of CT, in the spatial domain. We ask whether young children can break a complex spatial problem down into subcomponents that can be reassembled to solve the overarching problem. Across two experiments (Exp.1: 4- to 7-year-olds; Exp.2: 3- to 5-year-olds) that involve constructing block structures, we demonstrate that some of the key capacities underlying problem decomposition begin to emerge in preschool years and develop throughout early childhood. Although preschool-aged children struggle to solve an open-ended decomposition problem that requires generation and execution of decomposition plans, even 4-year-olds can successfully evaluate the viability of these plans. These results suggest that experimental methods in developmental cognitive science can inform CS education research that focuses on promoting CT; by identifying when and how CT concepts emerge in early childhood, we can better create age-appropriate educational tools.

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