Computing Concepts and "Big Ideas"

In making learners' conceptions of computing the object of study, we should wonder what things might be found if we were to study their mental landscape. We might expect to find there a range of computing concepts, and we might be interested in what concepts have become established and the connections between them.

It's important, though, to be clear about what we might mean by "concept". When I first started this wiki, I used the term "concept" in a rather generic, imprecise way. As Hall (2007, p. 53) has noted, the word 'concept' is often used when we want a more exact word than 'idea', and they help us make distinction between things we observe and aid in distinguishing different ideas in our mind. But it need not be a particularly precise use of the term. So at some stage, I'm going to have to tidy up what I mean by it (and there's a range of discussions towards the bottom of this page which might be clarified through it). For the interim, I should note that at times I mean
  • a big idea - ideas that the teacher sees as being at the heart of understanding the topic for the particular class under consideration (see Mulhall, Berry & Loughran, 2003); and at other times, I mean:
  • a concept in a more strict, classificatory type of way
  • the notion of principles (cf 'great principles of computing',, needs to be represented here somehow, too.

Grant, Johnson & Sanders (1990, p. 3) provide a good discussion of what is meant by a concept in its strict, classificatory sense. Daily we are exposed to an enormous amount of information. To assist us in the learning and remembering of this information, we organise what is relevant into categories we call concepts. Placing ideas or objects into these categories reduces the necessity for constant new learning. As long as a new idea or object has the distinguishing features of an already familiar category, we will not need to relearn it. Likewise, if we already have some understanding of a concept we will be able to predict in advance characteristics of a new example of that concept.

Many concepts are relatively concrete and definable. When we see a chair, on most occasions we are able to recognise it immediately because of the arrangement of its legs and seat. We have learned to associate the possession of legs and seat in a particular arrangement as a piece of furniture we call a chair. Of course, on many other occasions, we come across examples of "chair" which challenge us because they don't fit into the neat conceptual picture we have of a chair.

Some concepts are abstract and difficult to define, for example concepts such as species, hot, atom or technology. Two people may have very different meanings for anyone of these concepts and yet their own particular meaning may be totally defensible. In an activity in which science teachers are asked to draw concept maps illustrating their understandings of the concept energy … a wide range of pictures is produced, with differences which are related to the experiences am learning of the teachers. This is not surprising since the development of a concept by an individual is a cumulative process. The picture of energy, or any other concept, changes as the individual is exposed to new or clarifying experiences throughout life. The biology teacher is more likely to emphasise the energy relationships of an ecosystem than the chemist or the physicist, the chemist will highlight the energy exchanges in chemical processes and the physicist is likely to see, relationship between energy and "capacity to do work" as central.

Helping students to develop and clarify their understandings concepts is a fundamental purpose of the teacher. In the process must be borne in mind that students come to their science classes with a wide range of ideas about natural phenomena, often very differ from those of the teacher. In recent years, a considerable amount of research often referred to as "children's science" has been done on these ideas, and how difficult it is for the science teacher to alter these.

It is not only the very technical concepts of science which need careful consideration. Research has illustrated the range of alternative understandings which can be held by students, and presumably the wider community, about various everyday notions which have specific scientific meanings. Words such as pressure, force and animal, to mention only a few, are used in a wide range of contexts within the community in ways very different from their use in the science classroom.

Here is are some suggestions for computing concepts:
  • file names, locations, extensions, attributes
  • menu options
  • layers
  • search engines
  • essential image information

Some work has commenced to unpacking the "big ideas". See this page.

A number of specific methods for the teaching of concepts are presented by Grant, Johnston and Sanders, such as Suchman enquiry approach, predict-observe-explain or Socratic questioning. On the pages linked as follows, are some attempts to set up some teaching strategies in computing teaching related to each method:
  • Concept attainment
  • Taba's concept formation approach
  • Concept maps
  • Suchman enquiry approach
  • Schwab's "invitation to inquiry" method
  • Predict-Observe-Explain
  • Socratic questioning


Grant, P., Johnson, L., & Sanders, Y. (1990). Better Links: Teaching Strategies in the Science Classroom. STAV Publishing. ISBN 0 949820 14 8 [STAV is the Science Teachers' Association of Victoria]

Hall, S. (2007). This means this, this means that: A users' guide to semiotics. London: Laurence King

Loughran, J., Berry, A., & Mulhall, P. (2006). Understanding and Developing Science Teachers' Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Sense Publishers. Available on:

Mulhall, P., Berry, A., & Loughran, J. (2003). Frameworks for representing science teachers' pedagogical content knowledge. Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching 4(2). Available on:

Probing understandings of menu options (some thoughts of a probe into these)

Probing understandings of search engines (some thoughts of a probe into these)

Teaching computing concepts to new arrivals

Essential image information (teaching concepts of "images for the www")

This discussion thread would be easier to follow if each participant signed their contributions IMO (Bill 6thMay)
OK. So when is a wiki the more suitable medium to use? We are all being too polite to edit each other's work. At some stage we should copy all this to the discussion page and collaborate on agreed statement, (Tony 6May)
I think that, for the moment, a Web page is a good way to develop this particular line of discussion (Paul 7May)
There is a discussion page with each page .. is that better to use? (Roland 7April)

What are computing concepts? Are they more an understanding of processes, an accumulation of facts or a language?

How do we know that there will be a "view" menu, that it will probably have a zoom function? Do we deduce this from generalised principles or learn that as an immutable fact? Or do we just go on gut instinct, that's where we feel its right?

If the latter, computing concepts are a language which gains automaticity with practice like language. The discussions about immersion and learning of rules in language learning have equal applicability in computer concepts. Do the following reading strategies have relevance?

• Phonetic strategies
• Visual strategies
• Morphemic strategies
• Reference to authority
• Connection strategies
• Memory joggers/gimmicks/mnemonics
(Tony 4May)

One way to go would be to persue the arguments related to whether "immersion" is simply good enough as a sole strategy for language learning. That's perhaps a little tangential, but if we are going to draw a parallel between learning (say) location of menu items and language learning, then we'd need to deal with language learning in its "fullness". Pure imersion was a fad in language learning; arguably immersion is still the prevailing methodology when it comes to finding one's way around the computer, and it might be time to ask whether that fad has had its day, too.
(Paul 4May)

One suspects that strategies analogous to the reading strategies listed about would have relevance. What we need is for someone to try out writing some classroom material based on one or more of these and see if it seems to "help" ... (and find a way to define "help"). Maybe just a lesson or two ....
(Paul 4May)

As the originator of the "menu items" consideration, I don't want to push the issue too far. I reckon there's a good deal of gut instinct with navigating ones way around. But we can generally look at the "File" menu and realise that the commands grouped there tend to be those concerned with the "outside world" - the software and system surrounding the file in question. Also the "Edit" menu usually has to do with gross modifications to the "inside world". I am curious to know whether 'thinking about where you find menu items' might shed any light on whether students have any concept of an 'inside world' and an 'outside world'.

The somewhat more general context is this: I am deeply suspicious that simply by "immersion" one doesn't develop any concept of von Neumann architecture, and such a conceptual framework is actually quite important in developing good computing skills, and this extends to seemingly trivial matters such as what's in the file menu.
(Paul 4May)

But how important is understanding von Neumann? How relevant? When I save this wiki change I have no idea of the server architecture. Is it saving to RAM, disk or e²prom? Does it matter? The essential thing with the current Wintel GUI is that you have to file/save or you loose it when the power goes off. How much longer will we use volatile memory? In my palmtop, if I file/save it goes into the same ram as is used for working memory. Why do I bother? habit I suppose. Where do you save on your Ipod? mobile phone?

Discussion with a 13yo on von Neumann issues:
me: where is your file actually saved when you go file/save
13yo: MyDocuments
me: and where was it before you saved it?
13yo: on the screen
me: so if you disconnected the monitor, would you loose your work?
13yo: no, its... probably in a temporary file or something... on the hard drive
So a 13yo intuitive understanding is probably more accurate than the von Neumann model with virtual memory, swapfiles and whatever the application is doing behind the scenes these days
Tony 6May

The relevance of von Neumann is, I believe, the $64000 question. I wouldn't presume it's relevance, but its a hypothesis worth testing, I think. Also, I used "von Neumann" (above) to refer to the general concept that a computer has a working memory and a 'permanent store' (von Neumann' sonctribution was basically to build a computer with a processor and a 'working memory' operating hand-in-hand); I'm guessing, but subdividing down below this general concept is possibly pointless. Lots of stuff goes on behind the scenes.

My point for raising the von Neumann idea in the first place is to postulate that it is not _all_ happening behind the scenes. Loads of it is, but every so often some "thing" comes along and suddenly you are expected to know what's going on. More than the "von Neumann" idea, there is the idea that a document we are working with sits in context with a software environment; when we are working our consciousness has to 'sit' main on the 'internal' world of the document we are working on, and a little on the 'external' work. How many people don't get the idea that a program can have a default printer, which is different to the system's default printer? How many start doing file management in the 'open' dialogue box in (say) Word and look at you slightly odd when it's suggest that you are not 'in' Windows Explorer. There's "something", I reckon ... call it awareness of von Neumann, call it inside/outside ... but a "something" of this ilk which the better, more flexible users "have got" that the strugglers haven't.

A paper I read recently (I can locate it, if interested), quotes Edsger Dijkstra as saying that a fundamental issue with learning computing (esp computer programming) is adjusting to the fact that the computer is digital, compared with the analogue world which we live in. To Dijkstra, this "problem" extends to the computer being 'precise' in a way that we do not usually expect - near enough is not good enough; in the programming world I '=J is NOT the same as I '== J A double-click is not the same as two single clicks. This is a digression, but an interesting one ... it is possible, I think, that there is something fundamental about the software/system environment in which we work that, despite layer upon layer of system to make it more seamless and invisible, is still fundamentally von Neumann and that ultimately this can't be disguised and may, therefore, have implications in ways we haven't quite put our finger on.
(Paul 7May)

"the computer being 'precise' in a way that we do not usually expect" But aren't we talking about two different things now, computer programming and using applications. The former is precise and unforgiving, the latter is becoming imprecise and fuzzy as GUI's become more language like. (Tony 8May) The reason for starting that little thread off was to raise to our attention the possibility that, like "the binary problem" the implications of some working awareness of von Neumann might reach to tiny aspects of the users world that, those of us 'in the know' are unaware of. Its an obtuse connection used only for illustrative purposes. Of course, the "binary problem" is much more related to programming than it is to GUIs, but I am also thinking of how they are _now_ rather than what they will be; show me a GUI that can contextually differentiate between a double-click and two single clicks and I'll shut up! To the very early beginner: "why didn't it start" - you didn't double click - "yes, I did!" - no, that was 2 single clicks ... this is a huge issue. (Paul, 8 May)

Tony's interview ... excellent! Tony - you didn't say whether this 13yo is "good" at computers or not. My guess is that s/he is, and the clue is in the use of the word "temporary file"; [he is good at computers- Tony 8May] I find it surprising that someone would come up with that terminology without a little bit of background. But also, this "intuitive understanding" is exactly the sort of 'von Neumann' understanding that I am hypothesizing needs to be present. And the line of questioning is great - a first glimpse, it seems that something quite silly is understood by the student, but with an extra probe question, a much more realistic picture is portrayed.

Now, we might look hard, but I'd suggest that if we could find people of limited experience (perhaps quite young students) they would not describe it in these terms, that their conceptual understanding would be quite confused. That would not be your average 13yo, though. I'm not suggesting that the average 13yo with apparently good computer "use" may well be plagued by dodgy conceptual understanding in this area.

But what we need is these brief interviews with 50 or 60 people; and to note whether they 'seem' to be good at computer use or not, and we might need to look at quite young kids or adults in the very outset of their computing experience.

But moreover, we need to be increasingly cunning to also present a brief situation where a 'funny' conceptual understanding in this area might have an implication outside of actually saving it, and pose this, and see what they say. I'm not feeling cunning at the time of night I an writing this, my contribution to a list of possibilities will need to wait.
(Paul 7 May)

I have written a blog, strange beasts with flat tyres, saying that the computer - car analogy does not hold up very well
  • Computers are harder to drive than cars
  • There is a strange beast under the bonnet of a computer (Turing or von Neumann machine) , which does come to the surface every now and again
  • That the concept of computation has snuck up on society because it was non disruptive intellectually, although its consequences are disruptive, citing Rodney Brooks
(Bill 2 Sept)

The Monash children's science team had a small battery of multiple choice questions that they could grind adults and students through. This tool helped them to measure whether they 'seem' to be good at understanding science or not. Comparing different groups of people from the start of their computing experience and at different skill levels might help teachers to untangle the beliefs that they bring to the classroom.
(Roland 29 Oct)

"Adaptive learning scenarios for detection of misconceptions about electricity and remediation" might give some insights into the detection and remediation of computing misconceptions
(Tony Mar 07)