Computational thinking, often learned through programming activities, has been lauded by notable organizations from Google to Wired for its ability to teach people problem-solving methods for a new age. Referring to a set of methods for teaching individuals to express problems and solutions in such a way that a computer could execute them, computational thinking has caught the interest of many researchers. This is not only due to its potential to enhance academic performance; one particular aspect of computational thinking that three researchers in Hong Kong decided to investigate was its potential to increase student empowerment.

These researchers studied 278 students in fourth to sixth grade enrolled in a school program where they learned computational thinking and programming concepts. The students’ final project was to address community problems utilizing the skills and knowledge gained in the program. In order to determine how effective the program was in inspiring empowerment, the researchers gave the students surveys that asked about their interest in programming, the perceived meaningfulness and impactfulness of programming, its effect on their creative self-efficacy and confidence, and its impact on their attitude towards collaboration. Confirmatory factor analyses were conducted after survey answers were collected.

Results revealed that those with an interest in programming perceived the program to be more meaningful and impactful, and surveys showed that these students also demonstrated greater self-efficacy and confidence in their programming abilities. This higher degree of perceived empowerment was not shared by those less interested in programming, particularly older students and female students who were more likely to view programming as less meaningful and to have lower self-efficacy scores. Also, students who valued collaboration had greater self-efficacy, but not necessarily more programming self-efficacy.

This study demonstrates the importance of student interest in driving both skill development and empowerment; programming is only effective in empowering individuals who express an interest in it. While administrators, teachers, and programming course designers can use this research to support more efforts to effectively attract older elementary students and girls to learn to program (which is certainly an important goal), it’s also important to recognize that for some kids, empowerment might be more readily found elsewhere.

Kong, S.-C., Chiu, M. M., & Lai, M. (2018). A study of primary school students' interest, collaboration, attitude, and programming empowerment in computational thinking education. Computers & Education, 127, 178-189.

Image: via Pixabay.