PROGRAMMING CONCEPTS AS A MEANS FOR FOSTERING ANALYTICAL THINKING IN PRIMARY SCHOOL STUDENTS

O. Heidmann1, H. Tsalapatas2, R. Alimisi1, S. Tsalapatas2, C. Florou2, E. Houstis2

1Centre for Research and Technology Thessaly (GREECE)
2University of Thessaly (GREECE)
Analytical thinking is a transversal learning skill that helps an individual excel in wide areas, professional, social, civic, and personal. Despite the usefulness of analytical thinking throughout an individual’s lifetime, development of the skill in early life in the context of primary school curricula is not representative of its importance. An analysis of school programs in a number of European countries shows that analytical thinking development lags behind needs in elementary school. However, the research community agrees that it is crucial to provide students with opportunities to develop as analytical and creative thinkers. Introducing methods for building analytical thinking early in life can help children reflect upon their learning and develop fundamental learning-to-learn skills with wide applicability in subjects ranging from science and technology to humanities and art.
This work aims to facilitate the development of analytical thinking capacity among primary school children by exploiting information technology, and specifically visual programming concepts. Explorative, inquiry-based didactical approaches promote problem solving capabilities. The proposed learning methodology takes advantage of the precise, step-wise, and structural nature of programming that is inherently analytical, deeply rooted in universal logic, exists in all cultures, and transcends language barriers. The proposed approach leverages the essential link between technology education and creativity and encourages children to analyze problems by setting objectives, evaluating varying implementation alternatives, and comparing results in the context of collaborative educational activities.
The proposed didactical framework is validated through the design and development of an on-line learning environment through which children have the opportunity to algorithmically solve problems through visual programming. The integrated explorative learning approach is heavily based on on-line experimentation and allows children to become familiar with well accepted problem solving methods such as divide and conquer, decrease and conquer, brute force, etc. The learning tool starts by demonstrating basic programming concepts such as loops, conditionals, and switches in a tutorial area through easy to understand examples based on everyday experiences. Children become familiar with the concept of controlling an event through programming constructs. Once a basic comfort level is reached, children are encouraged to practice their skills by experimenting with the solution of specific problems in a hands-on visual programming area. The effects of their visual code are demonstrated in near real-time on the same screen providing a link between cause and effect and helping children build experience through trial and error. Once reaching a solution, children can compare it with ‘optimal’ algorithms pre-implemented in the visual environment for their benefit. In addition, they can compare their solution to others introduced by their classmates. This stage of learning introduces class collaboration where children can reflect upon alternative implementations to the same problem and contrast the effectiveness of solutions with respect to specific criteria, for example speed or originality.
This work is partly funded by the Comenius Action of the Life Long Learning Programme and takes place in Greece, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Romania; it will be completed in 2012.