Posted by: structureofnews | April 1, 2012

Beyond Numeracy

I’ve made the case several times before that journalists in general need to much more numerate to excel in the age of data; but maybe I wasn’t going far enough.

There’s an interesting NYT piece today on how some universities are offering courses on computer science – or “computational thinking” – for non-CS majors.   Some of these courses involve teaching programming languages like Python, but others are more focused on the issues around computer use and the ways they work.

Michael Littman, who leads the computer science department at Rutgers University, agrees. “Computational thinking should have been covered in middle school, and it isn’t,” he says. “So we in the C.S. department must offer the equivalent of a remedial course.”

And why not?  Computational thinking should have been covered in middle school; not computer programming per se, but thinking in structured, logical ways that help students understand not just how computers work, but how they can work – without which it’s hard to begin really imagining creative uses for them.  And given how much of the world is created through programs and programming – and especially how much of the information world is built around that – journalists should have at least a passing knowledge of computer science.  And numeracy.

The piece cites a paper by Jeannette Wing of Carnegie Mellon University that makes a passionate case for making computational thinking a basic skill.

Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing, and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.

Computational biology is changing the way biologists think. Similarly, computational game theory is changing the way economists think; nanocomputing, the way chemists think; and quantum computing, the way physicists think.

This kind of thinking will be part of the skill set of not only other scientists but of everyone else. Ubiquitous computing is to today as computational thinking is to tomorrow. Ubiquitous computing was yesterday’s dream that became today’s reality; computational thinking is tomorrow’s reality.

Without these skills – or more accurately, these mindsets – journalists risk ceding control over large parts of our future to others: Not just in terms of our ability to crunch data for stories, but also in the way we can design and build visualizations, apps or publish and distribute our work.  We don’t just write stories now and hand them over to folks at the printing press to put ink on paper; we are – or can be – responsible for the creation of the entire work, from idea to finished product.  Even if we don’t want to do all that, we should at least understand what the possibilities are.

I was watching my 11-year-old son begin experimenting with a Lego NXT robotics kit today, and was very gratified to see him have an instinctive sense of programming.  Whether or not he takes to it, it’s nice to know it computational thinking isn’t completely alien to him.  Now if only his father can get past the halfway point in the introductory book to Python.



  1. What’s missing in middle school, even more basic than computing, is the formal logic which is the the basis of any scientific thinking and even the basis of everyday’s argument. Without it, no proper reasoning is possible.

    • Couldn’t agree more – probably the best class I’ve ever taken was entitled Theory of Knowledge, during high school, which had both components of formal logic as well as discussion of other forms of knowing. That should be required everywhere too.

  2. “Without these skills – or more accurately, these mindsets – journalists risk ceding control over large parts of our future to others.” I think that really hits on the larger issue, which something I’ve been very interested in:

    Those fundamentals definitely include formal logic and concepts from science, as gevrey mentioned. Matt Thompson has been helping to spread the latter, which hearken back to Phil Meyer:

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