H. Tsalapatas1, O. Heidmann2, R. Alimisi2, S. Tsalapatas1, C. Florou1, E. Houstis2

1University of Thessaly (GREECE)
2Centre for Research and Technology Thessaly (GREECE)
Analytical thinking is a transversal learning skill that helps learners build knowledge independently of subject area. The capacity to synthesize a solution to a problem, as opposed to memorize a correct answer, has wide applicability in themes ranging from mathematics, science, and technology to arts and culture. The ability to approach a problem critically, to deconstruct it, to evaluate alternative implementations, and to construct a viable solution is valuable not only in academics but also professionally as well as in daily life. Current educational trends underline the importance of analytical thinking in learning; however, formal curricula in many cases fail to introduce educational activities that focus on the active development of this skill.
The work presented in this paper introduces a problem-based didactical approach for building analytical thinking among young learners by deploying visual programming concepts. The proposed cMinds learning method exploits the structured nature of programming, which is inherently logical and transcends cultural barriers, towards the introduction of algorithmic thinking early in life.
The approach takes into account earlier influences on building synthesizing capacity, including LOGO-like environments that were initially aimed at introducing Euclidian geometry to children and Scratch-like environments in which learners join programming constructs into a sequence similarly to joining bricks.
Rather than focusing on the teaching of digital skills, cMinds applies algorithmic reasoning towards building logic. A game-based visual programming environment has been developed aimed for classroom use. The tool maximizes graphical presentations of programming constructs and all but eliminates programming language-like syntax. Learners are presented with carefully selected learning games that introduce them to well recognized algorithmic solving approaches, including brute force, divide-and-conquer, and reduce-and-conquer. As a first step, learners explore potential solutions to a given problem in a manner similar to drawing sketches on paper. Once they have developed a basic intuition on the solution, they synthesize graphically in a hands-on manner an algorithm that solves the problem; learners achieve a solution by dragging and dropping from a toolbox of graphically presented programming constructs, conditions, and actions to a programming area. Learners get visually feedback on their efforts through an animation that precisely executes the steps of their “program”. Real-time system interaction helps learners identify and correct errors in an iterative manner, gradually scaffolding knowledge. Finally, learners can compare their solution to an “optimal” one through a comparison zone.
Validation in real-life learning experiments engaging learners and teachers in several European countries has demonstrated good acceptance of the learning methodologies and virtual tools. Learners commented that the game-based environment motivated them to tackle problems that would otherwise be intimidating, including math exercises, and that their success in synthesizing a solution enhanced their self-confidence.
This work is co-funded by the Comenius Action of the Life Long Learning Programme of the European Commission and will be completed in November 2012. The audience will have an opportunity to see a demonstration of the cMinds completed learning environment and receive information on field validation outcomes.