Episode 23 - Executive Function and Computational Thinking with Rina Lai

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Show Notes:

This is the third episode in a series recorded in London! In June 2018 we attended the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction conference (or, more simply, EARLI) for the special interest group on Neuroscience and Education (@EarliSIG22). While there, we recorded live interviews with teachers and researchers. This episode features Rina Lai. (Check out Episode 21 for our first interview with Dr. Emma Blakey and Episode 22 with Michael Hobbiss!)

Please excuse any issues with sound quality. We were quite literally recording on the fly!

Rina Lai.jpg

Rina P.Y Lai (黎栢凝) received her B.A in psychology at the University of British Columbia and MPhil in psychology & education at Cambridge University. She is now a PhD candidate and a member of a the INSTRUCT research group, a laboratory at Cambridge university that integrates cognitive developmental science to inform learning. She is particularly interested in the cognitive underpinnings of computational thinking. Currently, she is collaborating with computer scientists to develop a new computerized assessment of computational thinking that could be used by students, teachers and researchers. Rina is the founding member and internal vice president of the Cambridge China Education Forum. She has also co-founded the LT Academy, which provides consultancy services to STEM and robotics education to education institutions. You can find her on her website at rinalai.com and on Instagram @rina_py_lai. You can also check out PEDAL: Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning to see the work she is involved with.

Rina's Masters project focused on the differences between executive function and metacognition. Both are higher cognitive domains, both linked to prefrontal cortex, and both relate to academic outcomes. Executive functioning is an umbrella term that includes a number of neuropsychological processes including working memory, cognitive inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and planning. Meta-cognition is a cognitive domain concerned with how we think about our own thinking, and how we regulate our thoughts to maximize learning. For example, if a child has a question in class, they have to use inhibition to ask the question at the right time, and working memory to remember the question. Rina's group looked at educational outcomes including arithmetic, vocabulary, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning (previous research focused on one or only a couple of outcomes). Interestingly, they found that executive function and metacognition have both shared and unique contributions to educational outcomes.

After doing her Masters, Rina volunteered at a robotics camp for kids age 8-10, and this experience changed her trajectory. Now, Rina's research direction has shifted to studying computational thinking. Computational thinking is a set of cognitive processes that help us formulate a problem and devise a solution. These processes include decomposition, abstraction, algorithms, and debugging. Contrary to what it sounds like, this is not about using a computer! This is a skill that should be integrated into different subjects, rather than taught in isolation. Rina set out to look at computational thinking skills and how they relate to educational outcomes. In her literature review, she realized that there was no good assessment for computational thinking, since most are currently tailored to computer programming specifically. This has led Rina to focus on how to measure computational thinking to identify strengths and weaknesses of different processes within this domain.

In the future, Rina hopes to use the assessment in her own research to look for the relationship between computational thinking educational outcomes, and she also hope that teachers might find it useful as a formative assessment.

The big takeaway

Rina's biggest takeaway is a quote she shared with us:

"We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t yet been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet." 

—Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under Clinton" —Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under Clinton

Previous Episodes from this series:

Episode 24 - The Golden Spiral of Lifelong Learning with Ignatius Gous

Episode 22 - Attention and the Classroom with Michael Hobbiss