How can innovative design skills and computational thinking impact the writing of elementary students?

Change is inevitable in education. Every aspect of education is dynamic, subject to change to reflect the ever-shifting trends in curriculum, political climate, funding, organizational structures, teaching and learning, culture, demographics, and in the last several decades, technology. 

Technological innovations have reconfigured our patterns of living, working and learning (Neumann, Dion & Snap, 2021). Consequently, educational institutions and educators are required to transform their classrooms into learning spaces that inspire and enhance innovation, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities (Neumann, Dion & Snap, 2021). ISTE Student Standards (ISTE, n.d.) are formulated to equip students to navigate and thrive in this highly-technological society. ISTE Student Standard 1.4 Innovative Designer focuses on how students can be problem-solvers by creating designs that forge solutions using a variety of digital resources.  ISTE Student Standard 1.5 Computational Thinker underscores the analytical approach to problem-solving using algorithmic reasoning, pattern recognition, decomposition of big ideas into smaller and more manageable pieces, and representation of complex ideas using simpler models (ISTE, n.d.; Sheldon, 2017).

Innovative Design Thinking and Writing

How does innovative design thinking impact the writing skills of students? 

Angela Stockman, an author, instructional designer and teacher, speaks about the ways design thinking elevates the writing process (Stockman, 2017):

Design thinking is driven by empathy. 

In parallel, writers write for a purpose.  They are driven to write for their audience in mind – seeking to hook them in, to sustain their attention and to understand their interests. 

Design thinking is an immersive experience.

Writers begin to see themselves in the stories they write, and project questions, emotions or wonderings that their readers might generate as a result of reading their work.

Design thinking builds stamina.

As with any noteworthy endeavor, writing takes time and builds on perseverance, effort and diligence of writers to produce quality work.

Design thinking is iterative.

The daily work of writers includes revisions, adjustments and changes along the way.

Design thinking is all about innovation. 

Writing is a skill made up of complex tasks. It also requires creativity, a fresh perspective, and oftentimes, writers are required to take risks, to think outside the box, to move beyond their comfort zone and to jump into something totally new and unexpected. 

A classroom example: ITime

Our school places a high value on inquiry-based learning. Part of our approach to instilling curiosity is to have ITime, a designated time for personal inquiry.  Initially, students see ITime as one of their learning experiences at school where they get to choose to make something. As the year progresses, students begin to understand that ITime also incorporates math, reading, writing, science, as well as the skills of questioning, planning, researching, problem-solving and collaborating. They also develop dispositions, such as resourcefulness, resilience, growth mindset and reflective thinking.  

During one of our ITime sessions, students in my class were tasked to create a cup for me.  My students all knew that I love drinking coffee so they all decided to create a cup that I can use for coffee. They started the process by looking at a variety of coffee cups – cups of different shapes, sizes, colors, designs and odd-shaped cup handles. They began their work by creating a design – sketching a cup with the handle, choosing the colors, adding a picture on the cup and other pertinent details.  

Figure 1: Initial designs for a coffee cup

As students were creating their designs, they ‘researched’ and gathered more data by asking me questions, such as, “What’s your favorite color, Mrs. Rody?” or “What design do you like to see on your cup?” A couple of my students ended up drawing my family of 4 on the cup because I told them I always enjoy looking at pictures of my kids. This is a great example of ISTE Student Standard 1.4.a “Students know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems.”

Figure 2: New coffee cups

Computational Thinking and Writing

What is common among solving an equation, planning a project or creating a plan for a writing assignment? They all display a need for problem-solving skills. What is computational thinking? Simply put, computational thinking is the ability to tackle and solve problems using solutions that can be applied across disciplines and learning areas (Sykora, 2021). Employing more concise language, computational thinking is defined as “a set of mental and cognitive skills that are applied to the problem-solving process to help individuals discover and apply different strategies and algorithmic solutions to challenging and complex problems” (Neumann, Dion & Snap, 2021, p. 1). Let’s unpack computational thinking using these components (Sheldon, 2017): 

  • Algorithmic thinking – using or creating a well-defined series of steps to produce a desired outcome (Sheldon, 2017). An algorithm simply means a set of connected steps to accomplish a task. 
  • Decomposition – decomposing or breaking down a complex task into smaller components and working on it one small part at a time (Sheldon, 2017; Fernandes, Aranha, Lucena, & Fernandes, 2020). 
  • Abstraction – simplifying a complex idea by stripping the unnecessary details and filtering out the important information (Sheldon, 2017).
  • Pattern Recognition – recognizing patterns by analyzing and organizing trends in data that can be used to problem solve (Sheldon, 2017; ISTE & CSTA, 2011).

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) have worked together to create a working definition for computational thinking (2011).  According to this document, computational thinking is a problem-solving approach that includes the following characteristics:

  • Formulating problems that make use of computing skills 
  • Collecting and organizing data in a systematic way
  • Sharing data using abstractions
  • Using an algorithm to generate steps towards a solution
  • Identifying the most efficient solutions 
  • Transferring this knowledge to other areas or disciplines

Based on the same document (ISTE & CSTA, 2011), there are certain dispositions or habits of mind that allow or give way to the development of computational thinking. These are:

  • Confidence in dealing with complexity
  • Persistence in working with difficult problems
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • The ability to deal with open ended problems 
  • The ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution

How does computational thinking help writers?

Figure 3. The Primary Writing Process (Growing Educators, n.d.)

Writing is such a complex process. It involves many foundational literacy skills that are in concert with each other, such as the knowledge of the alphabet and the alphabetic principle, vocabulary, phonics, fine motor skills, grammar and spelling, to name a few.  In the diagram above, each sticky note shows a specific step that needs to  take place in order to progress to the next part.  The writing process, however, is not linear, and the way that each writer moves through the writing process is unique and often recursive, moving forward and at times, moving a step back. The writing process itself is a flowchart, describing a sequence of steps that writers keep track and follow.  

In the episode called “The Writing Process: An Algorithm for Computational Thinking”  from Read. Write. Think. & Code (2020), Sharon Jones and Renee Houser discuss the link between the writing process and the framework of computational thinking. To be able to break down the complexity of writing into parts or steps serves our young writers very well. Students begin with brainstorming or generating ideas, much like solving a problem. In this case, the problem is “What will I write about today?” Students solve this problem by choosing an idea, then they plan around that idea, sketch and label their thoughts, and write while rereading, revising and editing along the way. Once a topic is chosen, students essentially have to decompose that idea into sections (e.g. beginning, middle and end), and organize their thoughts towards how that idea will evolve into different parts of the story. They make decisions about the details they want to include and the details they want left out. The more iterations of the writing process the writers are engaged in, the more likely they are to notice patterns that help them be successful, while clarifying information that is either redundant or unnecessary. The entire writing process is a model of computational thinking at work.

Computational thinking will be a fundamental skill used by everyone in the world by the middle of the 21st Century.

Jeanette Wing

How do we prepare our students for the future?  

Innovative Design Thinking and Computational Thinking are 21st century skills that students must possess in order to thrive in this day and age. We must help our students develop as thinkers, problem solvers, designers, makers and lifelong learners so they are able to navigate these rapidly-changing times. We must also help develop the skills of collaboration, perseverance, learning from one’s mistakes and communication to help them participate in the larger online community.


International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) & Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), (2011). Operational definition of computational thinking for K-12 education. Retrieved from


International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Connects. (2016, January 19). Here’s how you teach innovative thinking. International Society for Technology in Educationhttps://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=651

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) (2011). Computational thinking teacher resources 2nd ed [Brochure]. https://cdn.iste.org/www-root/2020-10/ISTE_CT_Teacher_Resources_2ed.pdf?_ga=2.245086021.1171368225.1645361434-1044118494.1641600663

Jacob, S. & Warschauer, M. (2018). Computational Thinking and Literacy. Journal of Computer Science Integration. 1. 10.26716/jcsi.2018.01.1.1. 

Jacob, S., Nguyen, H., Tofel-Grehl, C., Richardson, D., & Warschauer (2018). Teaching computational thinking to English language learners. NYS Tesol Journal, 5(2), 12-24.

Neumann, M. D., Dion, L., & Snapp, R. (2021). Teaching computational thinking: An integrative approach for middle and high school learning. The MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/11209.001.0001

Read. Write. Think. & Code. (2020, September 20). The writing process: An algorithm for computational thinking. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9rQ_f7Xfsk

Sheldon, E. (2017) Computational thinking across the curriculum. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/computational-thinking-across-the-curriculum-eli-sheldon

Stockman, A. (2017, August 9). Five ways design thinking elevates the writing process. AngelaStockman. https://angelastockman.com/blog/2017/08/09/five-ways-design-thinking-elevates-the-writing-process/

Sykora, C. (2021, April 23). Computational thinking for all. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/explore/computational-thinking/computational-thinking-all

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One Comment

  1. What a powerful post Chelly. This makes me wish we had something like ITime at the middle school level. Any time students have invested choice, the results always seem to be more powerful and they are more invested. Thank you for sharing.

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