Why Teach Spreadsheets?

I often read blogs or articles which allude to the exciting nature of the possibilities of using video and podcasting in the curriculum, as opposed to spreadsheets. I think this raises a number of issues:

Firstly, why even bother to teach spreadsheets given the apparently more exciting possibilities offered by video and so on?

Secondly, is it true to say that spreadsheets are, in their very nature, boring?

Thirdly, even if they are, does it matter?

Why teach spreadsheets?

The short answer is that you don't have to. According to England and Wales' National Curriculum Programme of Study for ICT, you have to teach modelling and sequencing. You could certainly teach the latter through a curriculum centred on podcasting and other media. You could probably teach modelling too, but it would need to be thought through very carefully in order to avoid the danger of it's becoming too superficial.

Spreadsheets, however, are ideally suited to the teaching of modelling because that's exactly what they're designed to do. If you take the basic modelling question as being "What if?", using spreadsheets is, to coin an expression, a no-brainer.

But is it not the case that for spreadsheets to be useful, lots of numbers have to be involved? Well, not necessarily. I read some years ago an article by a teacher who was using spreadsheets in English to demonstrate the progression of a work of literature over time.

If, for example, you take a novel such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, you could plot the number of witticisms per chapter in a spreadsheet and then generate a graph showing how they decline as the book progresses.

Or you could take a work by Shakespeare and plot the number of jokes per scene alongside the number of killings per scene, the instances of dramatic irony per scene and anything else of interest, and then look at the resulting graph.

What that sort of thing will do is illustrate very effectively how the nature of the play or novel changes from start to finish, but it's not the only possibility. At the Online Information conference I attended in 2008 someone showed a screenshot from someone's MA thesis in which the student had used Excel to showcase the different kinds of rhyme in English poetry.

These are good examples of modelling, but you don't have to be quite so avant guard. There are lots of opportunities for modelling of the number-crunching kind, but I'll come on to those in a moment.

Let's not forget sequencing. Contrary to what some people have said, control hasn't so much disappeared from the curriculum as morphed into "sequencing", a much better term because it's more accurately descriptive and also wider in scope:

[Pupils should be able to ... ]use ICT to make things happen by planning, testing and modifying a sequence of instructions, recognising where a group of instructions needs repeating, and automating frequently used processes by constructing efficient procedures that are fit for purpose

That's exactly the kind of thing that spreadsheets are good for, which is why I decided to approach my chapter on sequencing in the latest ICT for Life (for Year 8, ie 13 year olds) through the use of a spreadsheet. It makes use of the IF function, which can be seen as a rudimentary example of sequencing, and macros, which encapsulate both sequencing and automation.

It seems to me that if you're going to decide to teach these skills through, say, video podcasting, you will have a tough time ensuring that the work is demanding enough to meet the criteria of the National Curriculum in a real, as opposed to superficial, sense.

For example, I think that it involves more than deciding on who in the class is doing what, and in what order, and then going out with a pocket camcorder and hoping for the best. You'd need to think of things like editing, which could address both sequencing and modelling, and even issues like background music (which can affect audience reactions and assumptions) as part of the attention to modelling. But, not being an expert in such matters, I think all that sounds more challenging than coming up with a good idea centred on the use of spreadsheet.

Are spreadsheets intrinsically boring?

I think if you regard a spreadsheet as little more than a glorified calculator then you would be hard put to find much of interest there. But there are two sides to the question of whether spreadsheets are boring.

Firstly, it's a matter of functionality. In a fully-featured spreadsheet like Excel, there are all sorts of ways in which you can approach "what if?" questions, from the relatively simple IF function, through conditional formatting and scenarios, to goal-seeking and pivot tables.

Secondly, and more importantly I think, is what you do with them. Over a decade ago I devised a spreadsheet which was quite complex behind the scenes, but easy to use. It was a party planner, and what you had to do was decide how many bottles of fizzy drink and so on you should buy. The rules were that you were not allowed to overspend or underspend (the spreadsheet would alert you if you did), and you had to buy everything on the list.

The starting point

Information is provided in real-time...

... which is just as well!

Obviously very simple, but put the students to work in pairs and discuss their purchases and it starts to take on a life of its own. It is actually quite hard to spend exactly a given amount of money without resorting to desperate measures like buying 200 bags of peanuts and nothing else!

Then you can start to throw in "curved balls", such as:

"Sorry, class, but I've just found out that your dad couldn't work overtime this week, so you can only spend £25 instead of £40." Or:

"Hey, I just found out that some of the people coming along are vegetarian, so make sure you buy something they can eat and drink too."

As a homework exercise beforehand you can ask them to do some research into what sorts of tings people buy for parties, and part of the lesson can involve getting onto the internet to try and find the lowest prices.

So, in a sense, the spreadsheet itself is boring: after all, all the pupils are doing is entering numbers because everything has been set up for them. But they're starting to learn what modelling is, in a way that is interesting to them.

But where this sort of approach really starts to take off is afterwards, when you say, in effect, OK, let's take the lid off and see how this thing works. You can ask the pupils, what do you think is actually happening behind the scenes to give you a message like "Sorry, but you have overspent by £14.16."?

The idea is to get them to understand the logic of what is happening, expressed in ordinary language. Once that's been achieved, you can start to construct a spreadsheet model using syntax that the spreadsheet program will understand.

If your spreadsheet work consists of (and I've seen this) getting the pupils to type in rows and rows of football scores and then find the average score and the highest score, then I agree with you: that is mind-numblingly boring. It's tedious, pointless (why not give them an already-populated spreadsheet?) and mundane.

With older students you can push the boat out a bit further. We're accustomed to spreadsheet models being concerned with business or sports, but how about science fiction for a change?

In The Cold Equations, Tom Godwin posits the idea of a supply spaceship that has almost precisely the right amount of fuel for its return journey, taking into account weight and distance. What happens when the pilot discovers a stowaway on board? I won't spoil the story for you by telling you (read it, especially if part of your job is to discuss moral issues with your students), but what a great starting point for a spreadsheet exercise! Can you construct a simple model showing what happens to fuel consumption when one of the critical factors (weight or distance) goes over a certain limit?

Again, this activity can be enriched by asking the pupils to do research into this area -- not necessarily in the area of space flight, but in the more accessible realm of fuel consumption by cars.

Even if spreadsheet are boring, does it matter?

I thought I'd throw this one in. I do think it matters, up to a point, which is why I wrote the book "Go on: bore 'em: how to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull". However, I do think there is a danger of falling into the trap of thinking that school has to be entertaining all the time. It's a fact of life that some activities are boring, but possibly necessary.

What springs immediately to my mind is preparing my invoices. I love the work I do, and when I finish one assignment I like to move on to the next. Instead, I have to find time to sort out the paperwork and get an invoice sent off to the client. That's just plain boring as far as I'm concerned. But if I didn't do it, we wouldn't eat!

I'm not suggesting that we try and bore kids as part of their preparation for adult life! But neither do I think we should tear our hair out and rent our clothes if school activities are not always as action-packed and fun-filled as kids would often have us believe they want them to be.

In fact, it's a con on their part, perhaps an inadvertent one. What kids want at school is not necessarily to be entertained, but to be kept interested, and to feel that they're learning something useful. Spreadsheets have the potential to form the basis of activities that help to achieve exactly those goals.

This is an updated version of an article that was first published on 24th December 2008.

Computing at School

Last night I attended the Owers Lecture on the subject of "Can we reverse the decline in schools' computing, especially with girls?" (I'll report on this in due course.) As the group called Computing at School was mentioned a lot, I thought I'd reproduce the following article from the April 2009 issue of Computers in Classrooms. The conference mentioned has, obviously, been and gone, but I think it's worth retaining that information for the links and because the agenda is interesting in itself.

The group has recently produced a glossy magazine (insofar as a pdf can be described as 'glossy'!) and some teaching materials, which I intend to review.

My own interest in this (as it's now de rigeur to declare one's interest, however slight) is that I love messing about with programming, having dabbled in Visual Basic and Visual Basic for Applications. Indeed, my chapter in the Year 8 book in the ICT 4 Life series is all about addressing the sequencing aspects of the National Curriculum through the use of VBA in a  spreadsheet.

There is a looming crisis in the world of computing, says Roger Davies.

As the speed of technological developments increases and with it the need for ever greater rdaviesthumbnail1numbers of computer scientists, researchers and technologists the numbers opting to study computing in higher education have halved in the last ten years. There are many reasons; the image of the discipline, the lack of a coherent study pathway in secondary education, limited exposure to any computing before 16 to name just a few. Post 16 the numbers studying Computing are small. As a result, Computing teachers often feel isolated and face difficulties keeping up-to-date.

It is ironic that as ICT becomes increasingly ubiquitous, fewer children are being taught the fundamentals of computing, in particular programming. Bright students, of the kind who might make a career in computing, often progress in spite of, not because of, their school education.

Yet many children are curious about the technology we take for granted. They want to know how Google finds so many hits so quickly, and how it ranks them. How does an email get to its correct destination? How does file compression work? It is computing that gets i-tunes onto their mobiles, allows them to stream videos from across the world and buy things safely online.

In recent years, diverse groups of enthusiasts have sought to bring these concepts to life in a way that is understandable for children. For example Queen Mary College produce CS4Fn – a magazine aimed at secondary age pupils with a wonderful supporting website. Based at Glasgow University, Computer Science Inside have worked with teachers to develop a growing number of resources and in New Zealand the Computer Science Unplugged team have produced a marvellous collection of classroom activities to demonstrate computing concepts without the need for a computer.

If the thought of programming conjures up visions of blank faces staring at incomprehensible lines code it is time to rethink. There are many exciting resources that aim to introduce children to programming in enjoyable and engaging ways. GameMaker (developed at Utrecht University), Greenfoot, (Kent University), Scratch (MIT) and Alice from Carnegie Mellon are just some of the excellent free tools finding their way into schools.

The recent revision of the National Curriculum, with a new, welcome focus on sequencing provides an opportunity to replant the computing flag within our Key Stage 3 (11-14 years old) ICT provision. Computing has a rich and deep tradition and it is time for teachers to rediscover it. Programming teaches children the skills to dissect problems, understand the logic and sequences that lie behind solutions and be able to construct those solutions so a computer can execute them. These foundations provide generic and extendable skills that have value in many spheres beyond IT. As Nicolas Negroponte (architect of the OLC project) commented:

"Computer programming is a powerful tool for children to 'learn learning,' that is, to learn the skills of thinking and problem-solving... Children who engage in programming transfer that kind of learning to other things."

There is something special in pupils being able to get a computer to dance to their own tune. In my experience computing projects are highly motivational because of their capacity to make pupils think and stretch them. But above all else, they can be fun. One of my Year 9 (14-15 year old) pupils observed, on completing a unit using GameMaker:

“That was great. You normally teach the boring bits of my Mum’s job”.

‘Computing At School’ is an open, informal working group of enthusiasts that aims to promote Computing at school. Its membership is broad including teachers, examiners, parents, LEA advisors, university faculty, and employers. CAS was born out of our excitement with the discipline; a key goal being to put the fun back into teaching computing.

We would like to invite fellow teachers to an inaugural conference at Birmingham University on June 19th. Speakers will include Tim Bell (http://csunplugged.org/), Paul Curzon (http://www.cs4fn.org/), Michael Kölling (http://www.greenfoot.org) and Quintin Cutts (http://csi.dcs.gla.ac.uk/) amongst others. We hope this free event will provide an excellent opportunity to explore new ways to bring computing into our classrooms.

We hope the conference will provide a basis for creating an organization similar to the American Computer Science Teachers Association which has done much work to support teachers and promote a passion for computing. Please come and join us.

Further details about the conference and booking details can be found at http://computingatschool.org.uk/files/CAS_Conference_2009.pdf or by mailing conf2009@computingatschool.org.uk

Roger is Director of ICT, Queen Elizabeth School, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. He started the social network http://aqacomputing.ning.com/ which aims to provide a self help group for teachers involved in A Level Computing. He is a member of the CAS Working Group.