Using Computers as Tools for Thinking

Educator documents and analyzes the ways students use computers as tools for representing their thought processes and connecting their learning to that of their peers.
Made by Digital Promise Computational Thinking

About this Micro-credential

Key Method

The educator documents and closely analyzes a brief set of interactions involving a computer, a student, and the student’s classmates in order to understand one student’s learning more deeply, which leads to helping all students use computers to support their learning more effectively.

Method Components

Representations of thought

Computers play a special role in computational thinking. While computational thinking can be used without a computer, the integration of computers allows us to engage in fundamentally different kinds of thinking than are possible without them. One way in which computers support thinking is by representing our thoughts. Working with computers, we can express relationships between objects (systems thinking), test out ways of doing things (algorithms), collect and make sense of many observations (data), and communicate with others (computational literacy). The micro-credentials in the “Key Elements of Computational Thinking” stack address these core ideas; each provides examples of using computers to represent thought.

There are some things educators can do to support students in using computers as powerful tools for thinking in educational settings. Most important is ensuring that students (not just educators) are the ones using computers as tools – that is, the use of the computer is driven by student purposes and ideas. As is possible with writing, the capability of computers to represent thought means learners can step back from their thought process to reflect on it. This kind of metacognition is important to learning in all subject areas, and the process of analyzing and understanding how students represent their thinking with computers is an important step for educators to facilitate the growth of metacognition with students.

Thinking with others

Computers can profoundly restructure our thought by allowing others to participate in it. For example, consider the relationship an individual has with words on the page, and specifically with the cursor, when using a word processor to write. We often use the words on the page to gather important ideas together, and use the cursor to focus our attention at the place we want to make changes. With the invention of word processors, in which many writers can edit a text together at the same time, collaborators can share in the writing process in a way that would be impossible without computers that can interact with each other. Other computational thinking tasks are social in the same way. Even when there is no collaboration within the computer interface, learners working together in the same space can think together by sharing the same representations provided by computers.

To support students in thinking together with others using computers, it is important to integrate computers into existing subject area best practices around social learning. For example, when using computers in group work, consider the physical configuration of the computers. Students will be better able to collaborate when group members all have access to the screen, and when the power that comes with having one’s hands on the keyboard and mouse is shared among group members. Students can take on the roles of authors and knowledge-creators by publishing their work, either online, on course web pages, or via a projector or screen. These knowledge-building practices can have the additional benefit of nullifying the educator’s place as the center of knowledge and authority, and allowing students to play more active roles in their learning.

Suggested Implementation

  1. This micro-credential asks you to pay close attention to how students are using computers in the classroom. First, decide the context in which students will use computers for computational thinking. The micro-credentials in the “Key Elements of Computational Thinking” stack address the core ideas of computational thinking, and each contains a suggested implementation of lessons using computers for computational thinking. Any of them would be suitable for use with this micro-credential.
  2. In this micro-credential, you will pay close attention to one student’s close interaction with a computer. Once you decide which lesson you will use, decide which student you will pay attention to, and complete the questions in Part 1. Consider selecting a student about whom you are curious rather than your strongest student, as the point of this micro-credential is to deeply understand the structure of one student’s learning, not to demonstrate excellent student behavior.
  3. Consider how you will structure the lesson so that you can spend some time observing this student closely without being called away to other responsibilities, and without making the interaction uncomfortable for the student. If at all possible, plan to videotape your observation so you can watch it later. If you cannot videotape, be prepared to take close notes and focus on nothing else while taking notes. Inviting a colleague to co-lead the lesson, or having students working independently in groups can help you make time for this focus.
  4. It might be helpful to prepare for this by making a habit of sitting with individual students (and especially groups of students) as they work. Sharing your observations and inviting students to also participate in these observations can be a powerful form of metacognitive learning.

Research & Resources

Supporting Research

Representation of thought

  • DiSessa, A. A. (2001). Changing minds: Computers, learning, and literacy. MIT Press.
  • Engelbart, D. C. (1962). Augmenting human intellect: a conceptual framework.
  • Collins, A., & Ferguson, W. (1993). Epistemic forms and epistemic games: Structures and strategies to guide inquiry. Educational Psychologist, 28(1), 25-42.
  • Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Basic Books, Inc.

Thinking with others

  • Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
  • K-12 Computer Science Framework. (2016).
  • Kafai, Y. B., & Burke, Q. (2013, March). The social turn in K-12 programming: Moving from computational thinking to computational participation. In Proceedings of the 44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 603-608). ACM.
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press. Summary:
  • Pea, R. D. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations, 11.


Submission Requirements

Submission Guidelines & Evaluation Criteria

To earn the micro-credential, you must earn a ‘passing’ evaluation for Parts 1 and 3, and a ‘Yes’ for each component of Part 2. In the assessment of this micro-credential, an educator will document approximately five minutes of a student’s interaction with a computational tool in a social context. The educator will closely analyze the interaction, explaining how the tool was used in the student’s learning process.

Part 1. Overview Questions

(400-word limit total)

Please answer the following questions:

  • Describe the student as a learner. Why did you choose to focus on this student?
  • Describe the context of the lesson. What was the learning goal?
  • Describe the computational tool. Explain your rationale for asking students to use this tool in this lesson.

Part 2. Work Examples / Artifacts

To earn this micro-credential, please submit the following:

1) Record of student-computer-peer(s) interaction

Submit a video or detailed notes, approximately five minutes in duration, which closely documents a student’s interaction with a computational tool in a social context. If the educator submits a video, they should include a transcript which includes notes on the student’s interaction with the tool and with peers.

2) Analysis of recorded interaction

(800-word limit total)

The educator should closely analyze the interaction, explaining how the tool affected the way the student represented their thinking and the way they learned in collaboration with others. As you answer the following questions, refer to specific evidence from the artifact(s) submitted.

  • Representations of thought
    • Focus on several specific interactions between the student and the computer, describing how the student used the tool to represent thought and engage in metacognition. Describe the student’s behavior, and interpret the student’s intent, as well as describing the student’s response to or understanding of the result of using the computer.
    • How did these interactions support the student’s learning?
  • Thinking with others
    • How did the tool affect the way the student learned in collaboration with peers?
    • What structures inherent in the computer or within the physical learning environment helped the student to interact with the learning of others and to take an active role in the learning process?
    • How did the social use of a computer support the student’s learning?

Part 3. Educator Reflection

(400-word limit total)

Please respond to the following questions:

  • How has this process – closely analyzing one student’s interactions with a computer in a social context – helped you understand general patterns about how other students in your class use computers as tools for thinking?
  • What more can you do to support all students’ use of computers as tools for thinking?

Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under:
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


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