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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Teaching spreadsheets in high school math classes

Should high-school math classes be teaching Excel? Or, more generally, should we be teaching spreadsheet use — and Excel just happens to dominate the market? We have been exploring these issues at Weston High School.

Certainly the right point of view is to teach spreadsheets rather than Excel, although the dominance of Excel means that it will inevitably be hard to distinguish it from spreadsheets in general. Anyway, I think the real questions are the following:
  1. What can spreadsheets add to high-school math?
  2. When and in what order should we teach various spreadsheet techniques?
  3. Should we teach non-mathematical skills such as formatting cells, creating headers, etc.?
A side point is that knowledge of Excel will be very helpful to our students in college courses and in a great many job situations, so somebody should teach it in high school. I suppose the responsibility falls to the math department by default, even if it isn’t really math, though that conclusion makes me uncomfortable. The only other likely places are the science department — since science courses also do a fair amount with Excel — and the business department, though that wouldn’t touch all students by any means.

There are a lot of issues, large and small, in using Excel. The notion of a variable is quite different from that of a variable in mathematics. Order of operations is important, and that’s almost identical to what we do in math and can therefore reinforce it. Sorting becomes important, and that’s a mathematical concept that comes up a lot in computer science courses but rarely in pure math. Graphing and regression are possible in Excel, but both are clumsy. Sometimes the syntax can be confusing, such as beginning a formula with an equals sign, but getting used to different syntactic conventions is a useful mathematical skill. A great many mathematical functions are built into Excel and can therefore be reinforced when we use spreadsheets. Perhaps most important is the level of abstraction involved in creating formulas that can be dragged vertically or horizontally independent of pre-existing data.

We’ve just completed an Excel activity in my college-prep Algebra II class: Saving for College. My hope is that this activity will not only give some experience with spreadsheets (that’s the secondary goal) but will also reinforce some of the important concepts in exponential functions (that’s the primary goal).

Incidentally, it turns out that many of those who teach Excel only have a very narrow view of this powerful piece of software. (As much as I don’t like Microsoft, I do have to admit that Excel has a great many excellent features and has an enormous number of useful options, many of which I barely know myself.) So I wonder if Weston needs to have a workshop in which we try to plumb the depths of Excel and figure out which aspects of this software will be most useful in teaching high-school math.

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