Teaching Complex Thinking and Heuristic Learning

I had just begun a quest on “teaching complex thinking” by reading an article in the NMC Horizon Report-2015 K-12 Edition when I had to stop and pull out the dictionary, not literally, to find the meaning of heuristic. According to the online English Oxford Living Dictionaries,
“Heuristic means enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves”.
What a perfect word! It surprises me that I haven’t come across the term more often in this era of inquiry learning since it seem to represent the pedagogy we are striving to bring to our learning environments. It is suggested that young people need to learn how to apply heuristic reasoning to complex problems in their networked world.  Complex thinking is defined as a skill that is needed to understand how systems work in order to solve problems.
Teaching coding in schools is said to help students to become more complex thinkers. When I was at university in 1985 I decided I needed to learn how to use a computer so I took a university computer course. What a mistake! Not really, but it sure wasn’t the path to learning how to use a computer I was looking for, but was instead a course on writing computer programming code. I don’t know that it made me a complex thinker but I did learn was how to think like a computer and that has had a profound effect on how I see the world and how I deal with computers.
So I wasn’t surprised when I read that Edutopia says coding has a profound impact on complex thinking and is tied to improved problem-solving and analytical reasoning skills. The learning process helps students to “construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, and draw conclusions.” England has recognized the importance of computer science in the lives of its students by making it a foundation discipline along with math and reading. This seem very proactive if, as Code.org projects, there will be 400,000 computer science students to fill 1.4 million computing jobs by the year 2020.
In her article on “There’s a Better Way to Teach Critical Thinking: 9 Rules of Thumb” Saga Briggs does not mention coding as a path to critical thinking but does argue that critical thinking should not be described simply by listing terms of higher order learning domains.  She doesn’t propose a definition for it either but suggest that it includes questioning other thinking, embracing other thinking, emulating other thinking, willingness to be wrong, questionings one’s own thinking, putting logic before bias, and recognising contradictions. The practical ways she proposes for improving critical thinking skills relate to essay writing but two of them I would like to try in class, 1) Have students write their own test questions, and 2) Hold oral exams so that the verbal communicators get an even chance to represent their learning.
I was drawn to this quest on critical thinking because of the frustration I feel when I try to encourage students to use higher order thinking skills when they’re interpreting experimental lab results. I see coding as breaking down an operation into its fundamental parts so that it can be recreated and manipulate digitally, and this is how my students need to look at their results in the experiment and the bigger picture. I don’t think there is any room in their current program for exercises in coding so maybe I’ll suggest they play around with some of the many entertaining and educational coding activities on Code.org just for fun. Who knows what advances in complex thinking I might start to see in their lab discussions.

Photo credit: My screenshot of Disney’s Moana coding program where I had my first adventures in coding. Available  at Code.org.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report-K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.