Spreadsheets, statistics, mathematics and computational thinking

May 14, 2018
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(This article was originally published at Learn and Teach Mathematics and Statistics, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

We need to teach all our students how to design, create, test, debug and use spreadsheets. We need to teach this integrated with mathematics, statistics and computational thinking. Spreadsheets can be a valuable tool in many other subject areas including biology, physics, history and geography, thus facilitating integrated learning experiences.

Spreadsheets are versatile and ubiquitous – and most have errors. A web search on “How many spreadsheets have errors?” gives alarming results. The commonly quoted figure is 88%. These spreadsheets with errors are not just little home spreadsheets for cataloguing your Lego collection or planning your next vacation. These spreadsheets with errors involve millions of dollars, and life-affecting medical and scientific research.

Using spreadsheets to teach statistics

Use a spreadsheet to draw graphs

One of the great contributions computers make to statistical analysis is the ability to display graphs of non-trivial sets of data without onerous drawing by hand. In the early 1980s I had a summer job as a research assistant to a history professor. One of my tasks was to create a series of graphs of the imports and exports for New Zealand over several decades, illustrating the effect of the UK joining the Common Market (now the EU). It required fastidious drawing and considerable time. (And correcting fluid) These same graphs can now be created almost instantaneously, and the requirement has shifted to interpreting these graphs.

Similarly, in the classroom we should not be requiring students of any age to draw statistical graphs by hand. Drawing statistical graphs by hand is a waste of time. Students may enjoy creating the graphs by hand – I understand that – it is rewarding and not cognitively taxing. So is colouring in. The important skill that students need is to be able to read the graph – to find out what it is telling them and what it is not telling them. Their time would be far better spent looking at multiple graphs of different types, and learning how to report and critique them. They also need to be able to decide what graph will best show what they are looking for or communicating. (There will be teachers saying students need to draw graphs by hand to understand them. I’d like to know the evidence for this claim. People have said for years that students need to calculate standard deviation by hand to understand it, and I reject that also.)

At primary school level, the most useful graph is almost always the bar or column chart. These are easily created physically using data cards, or by entering category totals and using a spreadsheet. Here is a video showing just how easy it is.

Use a spreadsheet for statistical calculations

Spreadsheets are also very capable of calculating summary statistics and creating hypothesis tests and confidence intervals. Dedicated statistical packages are better, but spreadsheets are generally good enough. I would also teach pivot-tables as soon as possible, but that is a topic for another day.

Using spreadsheets to teach mathematics

Spreadsheets are so versatile! Spreadsheets help students to understand the concept of a variable. When you write a formula in a cell, you are creating an algebraic formula. Spreadsheets illustrate the need for sensible rounding and numeric display. Use of order of operations and brackets is essential. They can be used for exploring patterns and developing number sense. I have taught algebraic graphing, compared with line fitting using spreadsheets. Spreadsheets can solve algebraic problems. Spreadsheets make clear the concept of mathematics as a model. Combinatorics and Graph Theory are also enabled through spreadsheets. For users using a screenreader, the linear nature of formulas in spreadsheets makes it easier to read.

Using spreadsheets to teach computational thinking

In New Zealand we are rolling out a new curriculum for information technology, including  computational thinking. At primary school level, computational thinking includes “[students] develop and debug simple programs that use inputs, outputs, sequence and iteration.” (Progress outcome 3, which is signposted to be reached at about Year 7) Later the curriculum includes branching.

In most cases the materials include unplugged activities, and coding using programmes such as Scratch or Java script. Robots such as Sphero and Lego make it all rather exciting.

All of these ideas can also be taught using a spreadsheet. Good spreadsheet design has clear inputs and outputs. The operations need to be performed in sequence, and iteration occurs when we have multiple rows in a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets need to be correct, robust and easy to use and modify. These are all important principles in coding. Unfortunately too many people have never had the background in coding and program design and thus their spreadsheets are messy, fragile, oblique and error-prone.

When we teach spreadsheets well to our students we are giving them a gift that will be useful for their life.

Experience teaching spreadsheets

I designed and taught a course in quantitative methods for business, heavily centred on spreadsheets. The students were required to use spreadsheets for mathematical and statistical tasks. Many students have since expressed their gratitude that they are capable of creating and using spreadsheets, a skill that has proved useful in employment.

 



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