Spreadsheets and pseudo problems

This week saw me looking at spreadsheets with my 1st year BEd groups. Our first year ICT module is all about using technology to support learning across the curriculum, but with some software such as spreadsheets this can be hard to do and it can end up being taught more in terms of how to use the software than actually using it for any useful learning. I tried to bring this danger to the forefront, and look at how doing all the hard work for children can sometimes do little more than drain their learning of relevance.

Many students did not feel confident with spreadsheets so I started with a quick run down of what they are. Just as when working with children, it can be tempting to just first up the software you are talking about and give a tour of how it is set out and it’s features. Particularly with spreadsheets, I think this is the wrong approach, as it is jumping straight into the abstract concepts before actually exploring the problem the software is designed to solve.

Instead, I presented them with a scenario I have used to introduce spreadsheets to children. They had a list of multiple items needed for a birthday party, and a price list of how much those items cost. I provided the children with calculators and asked them to work out the total cost. After a few minute doing that I told them someone else was coming and we would need two more pizzas, but two less bottles of coke as some didn’t like it. The canny ones looked at what had changed and adjusted their calculations, but most did the whole thing again. Then I changed more items, introduced two for one offers and generally complicated the whole thing whilst the children groaned and metaphorically tore their hair out. Having established a problem, we then moved on to how spreadsheets can solve this by providing flexible models for working with scenarios involving numbers.

I then showed my trainees what I had done as the next step with several classes. I presented them with a spreadsheet with a series of made up scenarios each carefully constructed to allow the children to decide which formulae they needed to create the appropriate model, and practice using those formulae. I have used this a number of times and it has been quite effective in teaching children how to use basic operations and formulae.

The problem is that it took me ages to come up with all of these scenarios and put them together in a way that would challenge the children’s skills, yet when they came to use them they quickly worked out the answer and then moved on. As one of my students rightly said “they aren’t learning any maths, they are just learning how to use spreadsheets”. There were probably further questions they could ask about the data in each scenario, but they didn’t. Why? They don’t give a monkeys about a made up situation that Mr Quinlan spent ages imagining. Despite a few attempts to hook them in by using their names in the examples, or choosing situations they may have some experience of, the data has no real relevance, so any questions they might ask are not interesting. They complete the formula, do the bare minimum and then move on. Wouldn’t you? That’s how it’s set up.

There must be a better way.

I think there is, and as I told my students I think it is to forget about the tedious preparation and start with nothing. I loaded up a blank spreadsheet, shared it with them and created two columns ‘Name’ and ‘Resting heart rate’. They measured their heart rates, then we jogged on the spot for 30 seconds and added the third column ‘working heart rate’.

This might seem like an irrelevant exercise for a group of undergraduate trainee teachers, but no sooner had the pulse counting finished than the conversations started. So far so good, but little real maths or spreadsheet skills had been used, that is until I said to them ‘What questions could we ask about that data?’. Now we had a decent size set of data, which they had a small emotional investment in, so the questions flowed.

-“What is the difference in my heart rate?” – We need to know how to work out difference and create a subtraction of two cells in the spreadsheet.

-“What is the average working heart rate?” – We need to use =SUM and a division operation.

-“What is the average difference?”- If comfortable with what a mean is, we can shortcut and use =AVERAGE.

-“How does mine compare to the average?”
….and so on…

The mathematical thinking, and the spreadsheet skills were flowing, and I thought I would throw in one that some of the boys in my class last year were bound to have asked; “How many heart beats are there all together?”. Rather than discounting the question, I would have asked them to use their spreadsheet skills to work it out, and I know they would have enjoyed seeing the huge number. “Whoah… that’s sick!”, they would have said.

But is it a useful question to ask? My students said no, and I asked why. Why is it that averages and differences are useful, and the total of everyone’s heart rates are not? I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question when I asked it, and it took some thinking for us to discuss that a heart rate is an individual thing so it has little meaning to total them. Imagine that conversation happening in my contextless spreadsheet exercises, no chance. Eventually we got to what I think is the key; you can compare your heart rate to the average, you can draw comparisons between how your heart rate changes and your fitness, but the total of everyones heart beats is useless because you can’t do anything with it.

Data is only useful when you can do something with it… the perfect segue into the next part of our session on using spreadsheets for assessment data…



Photo (cc) Mark Mathosian





2 responses to “Spreadsheets and pseudo problems”

  1. Damien Avatar

    I love the way that ‘thinking’ about spreadsheets is modelled and made explicit in this activity. The ‘how’ and ‘what’ of spreadsheets can be covered quite quickly: it’s the ‘when’ and ‘why’ that require development and the activity you describe does this beautifully!

  2. […] As I have written before, when I first started teaching I used to spend hours concocting pseudo problems to give certain lessons a context. That is, until I realised that they take a long time to put together yest a short time to solve, for a learner they are meaningless and unhelpful, and that real contexts are often far more powerful and less work into the bargain. However, when reading ‘Thanks Textbook’ today and laughing to myself it made me realise another facet of such problems; they construct the world of learning around un-truths. […]

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