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The Need for Spreadsheet Math in K-12

Guest blog written by Art Bardige, Sustainablearning

The wonderful algebra suggestions of the Sept 26, 2012 article "N Ways to Apply Algebra With The New York Times" open the door to not only authentic problem solving in our algebra courses, but to a much deeper and more important question. Anyone in business today would immediately open a spreadsheet to work on any of these problems. They would copy or build tables, create graphs, play with formulas, and they would ask give themselves the opportunity to do the fundamental thing that spreadsheets enable us to do, ask "What if..."

Spreadsheets have become the mathematical laboratories for business, for science, for technology, and even for many consumers. They are the way we do our math, the primary tool for quantitative reasoning, and yet they are barely mentioned in our schools. They were mentioned only once in the New York Times article. They were mentioned only seven times in the Common Core State Standards in Math (fractions were mentioned 210 times). They are the primary mathematics tool of the 21st century, yet they are virtually invisible to most of our students.

Unfortunately, too many of us think about spreadsheets as just calculating engines grouping them, as the mention in the article does, with fancy calculators that graph as well as calculate. We think about spreadsheets as shortcuts for students and either neglect them or rail against their use in schools. Many worry that using spreadsheets in schools will preventing students from mastering the arithmetic skills they need to be good quantitative reasoners. Indeed, there is good reason to be concerned when we think of adding spreadsheets to our existing mathematics curriculum. That curriculum focuses on the mastery of algorithms, the processes we use to multiply and divide large numbers. Our children still spend hundreds of hours perfecting their ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions. And the pinnacle of math for most of our K-12 students remains the ability to solve quadratic equations. When was the last time you used any of these skills? When did you last multiply two three-digit numbers together on paper, add two improper fractions with unlike denominators, or solve a quadratic equation?

Now I am not talking about mental math, the ability to estimate, the ability to recognize orders of magnitude, the ability to see through a quantitative problem and to mentally reason about that problem. I am not talking about understanding. I am talking about mechanical processes. The math skills our children require today are not the same as the skills the "Greatest Generation" required. The skills our students need for the 21st Century are the skills embodied in the math of spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets are function machines. They are tools for working with variables. Sure they enable us to quickly and accurately perform arithmetic calculations, but that is only a small and trivial part of what they do. They enable us to represent quantities that vary as tables and charts, and they enable us to use and create functions to transform variables. Thus, we can build models, we can explore those models, we can learn to ask "What if..." of those models, and we can easily change those models if we need to. By teaching our children spreadsheet math we enable them to solve the kinds of problems the New York Times article suggested, fascinating problems, problems without a single right answer, problems that can be explored, problems that get our children thinking "out of the box." The New York Times suggested and we agree, it is time for our students to be using spreadsheets as their math laboratories and time for us to think about math as an experimental science.

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