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Computational Thinking and Math for Elementary Grades

Fun, exciting tools and techniques can help very young kids understand math and learn computational thinking. Today’s guest, Steve Floyd, tells us how.

Computational Thinking and Math for Elementary Grades


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Enhanced Transcript

Computational Thinking and Math for Elementary Grades

Link to show:
Date: February 8, 2018

Vicki: Today we’re talking with Steven Floyd, from London, Ontario, Canada. He was named one of ten 2017 Computer Science Association Awards for Teaching Excellence.

computer science teacher steve floyd canada

Today we’re going to talk about teaching computational thinking for K-6.

Now, Steve, a lot of folks talk about Computer Science and teaching coding with the older levels, but what kinds of computational thinking should we be teaching the younger kids?

What kinds of computational thinking should we be teaching younger kids?

Steven: It’s been actually really quite interesting. We’re looking at some of the concepts and some of the things that students are doing in the older grades.

I know for myself with a few of the project we’ve been working on, we’ve been saying, “Can we get the younger students to engage in these same types of thinking?”

Obviously, they’re doing simpler tasks, maybe they’re not as complex and in depth, having tor but the type of problem solving they’re doing — the type of debugging, and having to sequence their instructions and reiterate and do trial and error — all of those things that we see the older students doing, we’re finding that with the newer technologies we can get these younger students doing the same thing.

It’s been really cool, It’s been really interesting.

Vicki: Steve, do you have any favorite tools that you like for the K-6 crew?

Favorite tools to use with younger kids

Steven: We’ve been working with the Bee Bot. It’s a small little bee. It has about six buttons on it. You program it to go 15 cm forward, turn 90 degrees left. Then you just hit GO, and the bee executes the instructions.

We’ve used that with even junior kindergarten kids. They’re usually doing spatial reasoning tasks and trying to get it to go around a grid.

We do a lot of work with Scratch Junior, a free app on iPads and things. You can get an grid and X-Y coordinates on there. Students are doing storytelling, where they’re having to decompose their story into smaller chunks and then code the story.

Those are the two big ones that we’ve been using. The we usually move to Scratch, somewhere around grade three or 4. That’s a nice transition for the students, because it’s still block coding, but it adds a little bit more complexity.

Vicki: I actually have some of my older students do Scratch. It’s a great way to introduce them to all kinds of computer science concepts before you’re ready to go into actual coding.

Today we were doing a project, and one of them said, “This is math! This is geometry!”

I mean, there’s a whole lot of math in this computational thinking, isn’t there?

There’s a lot of math in computational thinking

Steven: There is. It’s just a natural fit.

Sometimes we’re teaching specifically to the students to learn coding, to learn about loops, or to learn about a variable. But a lot of other times, we’re using coding to have students experience math.

So in Scratch you can have the Cartesian planes, or in Scratch Junior, you just have XY coordinates. It’s a really cool way for students to sort of experience math.

There’s a professor here in London, Dr. George Gadanidis, and he does a lot of work on math and computational thinking.

Instead of having students write down responses and being told how mathematics works, they’re getting a chance to sort of construct that knowledge by using these tools. It’s really, really interesting to see.

We even had a grade 7 classroom (in which) this young girl was just so excited. She called her teacher over, and she started doing a dance when she got the cat to move to the right coordinates. I thought it was kind of cool, but we see that sometimes in our computer science classes…

The teacher saw me afterward, and he just couldn’t believe that she was doing that, that she saw herself — at least temporarily — as a mathematician. She had never had that kind of success. It’s really cool to see thing like that happen.

Vicki: Steve, do you find that there are teachers that think that kids can’t really understand these concepts — like elementary kids really understanding XY coordinates?

Are there teachers who think younger kids can’t understand this?

Steven: There are, sometimes. We’ve been doing a lot of getting teachers to just do it.

Rather than having these really long sessions where we introduce the concepts, and we’ve got these slideshows, and we’re explaining the theory behind it all… What we’re finding is that we get teachers to come in and just grab the tools right away, start doing something that might be step-by-step.

They quickly learn it that morning. Because they’ve learned it just that morning, first off all it builds their confidence in teaching it, but also they realize that when they go to teach it to the students they’ve just learned it themselves.

So actually they’re a little more prepared to teach it to the students because they can empathize with the learning process. They understand the barriers that the students might face, because they just faced those barriers earlier that week when they were learning it themselves.

So it’s been really interesting. There is that sort of growth mindset you have to instill in them. But telling them to have a growth mindset doesn’t always work. We find just that handing them the tools, getting them to have some success with it — makes them realize that they can handle this.

Vicki: And there’s nothing like when the child says, “OK, I want it to go over here. I want it to go over there.”

Calculating those X and Y coordinates — which really kids of most ages can do — and then realizing that they can make the physical robot go here or there based upon their program.

Steven: Exactly. I think it was Seymour Papert that said, “These are tools (or objects) to think with.”

Tools to think with

That’s what these computers are. That’s what these robots are. That’s what these little lines of code are. They’re just tools to think with.

The students will type in the stuff to get the robot to here or to there, and it doesn’t work. But they’re understanding eventually WHY it doesn’t work. They are being able to construct their knowledge a little.

They’re realizing, “So THAT’S what X coordinate means, and THAT’S what Y coordinate means.”

We’re hoping to look into, maybe, does that transfer onto other tasks? So when they’re doing tasks on paper or something, that involves X-Y coordinates — having constructed that knowledge with the robot — does that lead to greater success? That would be really interesting to see.

Vicki: Steve, you’ve given us one example of a seventh grade girl. Do you have an example for us where the light bulb went on? You just realized, “Perhaps we’re underestimating the abilities of our elementary kids.”

Do we underestimate the computational thinking abilities of young kids?

Steven: We were in a grade three classroom, and we were doing X-Y coordinates.

What we had going on was that a few of my high school students were teaching the grade threes. So we had this program where our high school students came in to teach, which was really cool to see our high school students being leaders like that.

We had told the teachers ahead of time what we were going to cover. The teachers had said, “That’s a LOT of material. It’s a grade three class, and it’s an hour before recess. But we’ll see how you guys do.”

And they were just blown away at how quickly the students picked it all up. We eventually — because there was time left — went up to the board and started talking about rotations and translations and reflections to these grade threes. I think we called them flips and slides and turns at first.

By the end of the lesson, the students were using this terminology. The teachers were just amazed. And some of the students would record themselves. So when their cat was doing a rotation, they would record themselves saying “rotation.”

At the end, we sent a few students down to show some of the other teachers, and they were just playing in the program, basically labeling with this audio, each of the translations, the reflections.

It was a really cool experience for the students — and also for the teachers there to say, “Wow! They’re covering a lot. And it seems like they’re really understanding it. They’re able to say it in their own words afterward.”

Vicki: Wow! You’re really making us think!

So, Steve, as we finish up, could you give us a 30-second pep talk on why we need to have computing and computational thinking in the elementary grades?

Steven: There’s always that argument for jobs and for the labor market — which is a great argument. We want our students obviously to have skills that they can find employment. We want the labor market to be full of people with IT skills.

And that’s… that’s exciting… that’s good…

I know a lot of teachers don’t seem to get up in the morning, not passionate about their work (being) simply to fill the labor market. They want students to be developing as human beings, developing as citizens.

It’s not just about the jobs of the future being based in IT

And I think that’s what’s sort of underestimated with coding and computational thinking. The natural things that happen — things like innovating and creativity, and the way students are collaborative (almost automatically, when one student has something working and another doesn’t) — the idea with these coding and computational thinking tasks is that often there’s not one right answer.

So students learn that there’s more than one possible solution.

They learn that they can get feedback right away from their programs. They can try quickly.

They say sometimes, “You can fail quickly, and you can fail cheaply, because you can just change the code and try again, and change the code and try again.”

So it’s my hope that students are learning these skills and they are realizing that they can apply these to other areas of their life. They can be creative, innovative, collaborative. They can be problem solvers in other areas.

The other big one that really interests me is sort of media awareness. Maybe it’s media literacy, or just knowing a little bit about how the world works.

Knowledge about coding transfers to other areas of students’ lives

Once you understand a little bit of computer programming code, you start to look at things a little differently. You understand how the traffic lights might be working in your city, or how they could work better. You understand why you get certain ads sent to you, maybe in email or maybe certain things pop up when you're using the internet because you were shopping for shoes the day before.

You start to understand those algorithms, and I think it just makes you a “critical citizen,” I suppose… a critical thinker? I think those are the things that we’re not quite focusing on yet, with coding and computational thinking. But it’s definitely beyond the jobs.

Vicki: And I would encourage all of our listeners to also pick up a book called Humility is the New Intelligence.

Basically, the next big disruption of jobs is going to be intelligent machines. It’s going to displace a significant number of jobs.

Part of the thesis of the book is that the jobs that will be left will be those requiring creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and working with other people — things that machines cannot do very well at all.

These are the things that we have to teach — how to interact with these intelligent machines, how to program, but also how to do these other things.

I think that it’s more than just coding. It’s more than just computer science.

And Steve, I like what you said about, “It’s not just about having jobs and all that.”

That’s important, but I think it’s about being relevant and employable because you CAN solve problems, you CAN create, and you can collaborate with people as you do these things.

So… teachers get out there and plan for computational thinking and coding and adding that to you K-6 curriculum.

Contact us about the show:

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Steve Floyd is a high school Computer Science and Computer Engineering teacher from London Ontario ,Canada and was one of ten worldwide recipients of the 2017 Computer Science Teachers Association Award for Teaching Excellence in Computer Science ( He has worked on a number of coding, computational thinking and mathematics projects with elementary and high school teachers and along with his wife, Lisa Floyd, he co-hosts TV Ontario's Coding and Computational Thinking in the classroom online hub (


Twitter: @stevenpfloyd

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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1 comment

International School Chennai February 9, 2018 - 7:00 am

This is great blog. The computational and math blogs are very useful for all.


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