Computer Science and PISA 2021

By Andreas Schleicher and Hadi Partovi

Recent years have seen a growing movement to teach computer science in schools. On the one hand, this makes sense. Robots, artificial intelligence, and automation are poised to change virtually every aspect of work and life; surely, public education must react and teach the curriculum of the future. On the other hand, school systems are already overburdened and still struggle to teach key foundations, such as language or mathematics. Does it make sense to teach a vocational skill like coding?

It may come as a surprise that we both agree on one answer: instead of focusing on the syntax of the latest coding language or technical tools of the day, schools should teach the essential concepts of computational thinking and digital technology. Those who don’t understand the nature of algorithms are most at risk of being manipulated by them, and of being disempowered by technology, rather than empowered by it.  

Like other fields of learning, computer science and computational thinking, when taught well, can prepare students to apply problem solving, creativity, and collaboration in all sorts of domains – whether they be technical pursuits such as coding, cybersecurity, robotics and AI, or nontechnical pursuits such as law, logic or philosophy.

That’s why we’re proud to celebrate the news that the 2021 PISA assessment will incorporate aspects of computational thinking for the first time, as detailed below.

Computational Thinking in PISA 2021 Mathematics

In 2021, the PISA mathematics assessment will incorporate questions that test computational thinking –  the logical or problem-solving approach that serves as the conceptual backbone of digital technologies.  

Below is an example of the type of computational thinking question that could be included on the 2021 PISA assessment.

While computer science itself is a broad domain, including aspects such as computer programming (coding), algorithm design, data science, cybersecurity, networking, machine learning, and robotics, all of these sub-fields rely on a deep conceptual understanding of computational thinking. That is why it was chosen for the PISA 2021 mathematics assessment.

For more details on the inclusion of computational thinking in the PISA 2021 Mathematics assessment, click here

Computer science and computational thinking, when taught well, can prepare students to apply problem solving, creativity, and collaboration in all sorts of domains.

Computer Science Student Survey in PISA 2021

In addition to testing computational thinking, the 2021 PISA assessment will give students the choice of self-reporting their own knowledge of broader computer science concepts and skills.  While not mandatory, the optional “ICT Questionnaire” included in PISA 2021 will question students on their abilities to create a computer program, identify the source of an error in a software after considering a list of potential causes, or break down a problem and represent a solution as a series of logical steps, such as an algorithm. Schools will be asked whether computer science is a priority and how student participation or demand has changed. This survey will help global policymakers to assess whether the next generation of students is adequately prepared for increasingly digital workplaces. 

Although many studies have focused on the population’s preparation for basic digital work (such as creating a document or browsing the internet), PISA 2021 will be the first to explicitly study how countries include computer science in their education programs. 

At a time of historic technological shifts, today’s students will be increasingly required to know not only how to use technology applications, but also how to create, understand, and manage technology.  It is therefore important to include computer science when assessing their digital skills.

Implications for educators and policy makers

Many countries have taken steps in recent years to incorporate some form of computer science or computational thinking into their school day curricula, including Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom.  Others are beginning to do so, and they do not need to start from scratch. Below are useful links to the work of educators in countries that are leading the way in computer science education:

  • The K-12 CS Framework, created by educators, local government and the largest technology companies, used as a model in the US and many other countries.
  • The Informatics for All initiative that promotes the inclusion of computer science in schools across Europe.
  • The Brussels workshop on the status of informatics education in Europe and the United States.
  • The State of Computer Science Education report by, the CS Teachers Association, and the Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance.

Andreas Schleicher is the Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills. Hadi Partovi is the co-founder and CEO of

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