Education Opinion

To Build Computational Thinking Skills - Harness the Power of Play

By Beth Holland — March 30, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past few weeks, I feel as though I have come full circle in my readings and research. I started learning about educational technology at the turn of the century - literally. In 1999, I became enamoured with the notion of using digital tools to encourage deep inquiry and provide students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with otherwise abstract concepts. From Seymour Papert’s work with Logo to Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment, I explored the potential for students to teach themselves not only about technology but also the world around them.

For this reason, it came as a bit of a shock when I then discovered Larry Cuban’s groundbreaking book Oversold and Underused in 2001. As a professor at Stanford, Cuban chronicled the use of technology in Silicon Valley schools and revealed that most places simply treated computers as glorified typewriters. Despite the potential for these technologies to engage and connect students with new learning contexts, Cuban found that most teachers continued existing practices instead of creating new types of educational experiences.

Between 1996 and 2001, researchers Yong Zhao and Kenneth Frank at Michigan State University conducted a different study in nineteen elementary schools within four districts in one Midwestern state. They compared the spread of computers in schools to that of an invasive species. In most instances, teachers and administrators “tamed” the technologies to fit the existing ecosystem rather than adapt their practice to take advantage of the new affordances. So while Papert, Mitra, and others hailed the potential for technology to encourage deeper learning and inquiry by encouraging students to play, explore, and create, the traditionally bureaucratic structures and systems of schools seemed to be working against these new capabilities.

As an ed tech enthusiast, I would like to think that these studies are no longer relevant, that we have finally moved beyond the idea of using powerful digital tools for no more than the replication of existing practices or the digitization of traditional assignments. However, as evidenced by the myriad of technology frameworks, plethora of professional development offerings, and more studies that I care to cite right now, we still seem to be missing the mark when it comes to capitalizing on the potential for technology to change learning. Instead of encouraging students to explore and create, the focus often seems to be on standardization, assessment, and the process of fitting new tools into traditional practices.

Though recent efforts by organizations like Code.org, Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and Google have raised the issue of computational thinking and coding to a national level, it seems to have already started the enculturation process. Standard curriculum and the push for traditional assessments have started to “tame” the process. However, after speaking with Krishna Vedati, CEO of Tynker, the answer to helping our students develop these new skills may actually be quite obvious: maybe we just need to give students an opportunity to play.

The genesis for the Tynker learning system came when Krishna had his own children. He discovered that they learned more about computational thinking and coding outside of the classroom than in it. At school, most of his children’s technology use seemed more consumption based - drill and practice games, word processing, and maybe some research. Krishna wanted to design an opportunity that would allow his children to become makers, coders, and tinkerers. Tynker then evolved not only as a means to inject play-based learning with children’s inherent interests - toys, robots, even Minecraft - but also as a tool to help teachers bring computational thinking and coding into the curriculum.

Unlike other coding apps, Tynker focuses on the design of experiences. Instead of stressing a coding language or set of rules, it wants students to naturally build terminology and understanding as they play and explore. Ultimately, Krishna wanted a means for children to develop literacy and fluency with technology. As a result, Tynker created their platform and curriculum alongside game designers before reverse engineering it to address various school standards.

So what does this look like in practice? Recently, I started seeing pictures tweeted out from Chris Casal (@mr_casal) at Heathcote Elementary in Scarsdale, New York.

When I asked Chris about the reality of using Tynker with his students, he explained that he really likes Tynker because of its ability to differentiate through scaffolding combined with the “blank” project space for free creation. He noted that Tynker allows for independent work and exploration but with lots of student-centered supports. Some other coding tools like Scratch can be so open and robust that they become overwhelming for students (and teachers). Tynker gives novices and experts in the same class the opportunity to work in the same environment, at their own pace, but with both support as well as the chance to grow. When it comes to developing coding proficiency and computational thinking, Chris feels as though it provides tremendous value and opportunity for his students to explore and learn.

I spoke to Krishna as part of a broader panel conversation at SXSWedu about why tech companies invest in early learners. Meenoo Rami from Minecraft Education and Mo Fong from Google echoed his sentiments about the need for students to have an opportunity to play and explore as a means for developing broader computational thinking and technology literacy skills. They all talked about the need to create a culture of iteration and experimentation, to provide students with opportunities to build learning communities in both physical as well as digital spaces, and the ability to visualize and solve problems in 3-dimensions. To achieve this goal, they advocated for the same principle as Papert and Mitra: students must have an opportunity to play.


Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zhao, Y., & Frank, K. A. (2003). Factors affecting technology uses in schools: An ecological perspective. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 807-840. doi:10.3102/00028312040004807

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.