Bring real-world tools to the math classroom with spreadsheets

It's time for math education to move on from the graphing calculator and match how things are done in the workplace
Jack Marley-Payne is director of research at Financial Life Cycle Education.

I work in mathematics education research, but I’m lucky enough to share an office with a company that analyzes mortgage-backed securities. Unsurprisingly, much of their work is highly mathematical; however, you might be surprised to learn what it doesn’t require: graphing calculators. Not a single one is to be found in the office.

This is not an aberration. Despite being the primary technology used in mathematics education, the only people who still use graphing calculators regularly in their workplace are math teachers.

We need to ask whether the current setup is the best to serve students, both in fostering their mathematical understanding and in preparing them for the future. Are there real-world tools available that we can use in the classroom?

In bringing more career-relevant instruments into class, we need to ensure that doing so does not jeopardize the quality of math education. As National Council for Teachers of Mathematics note, in their trendsetting manifesto “Principles to Action,” technology is an essential part of excellent mathematics education.

Crucially, though, in order to be effective, it must be used appropriately and promote mathematical reasoning and sense-making. In less technical language, the technology must be a tool for doing math—not a gimmick for students to play around with or something so complicated, students spend all their time learning its specific rules of operation.

No more ‘funny symbols’

I believe that spreadsheet software is the ideal technology for this purpose. As my colleagues and I show in our recently published paper, working with spreadsheets allows students to develop their algebraic reasoning.

Students can perform operations on large families of numbers simultaneously, by making the values in one column a function of the values in another, which is really the heart of algebra.

This opportunity for a fresh, visually driven, approach is especially valuable for the many students who struggle to make the transition from arithmetic to algebra, and are put off by the heavy emphasis on manipulating “X’s and Y’s.”

They can learn that algebra is about abstract reasoning, not about funny symbols. As students become more adept, they can use spreadsheets to perform large number of rote operations automatically, such as generating a geometric sequence with hundreds of terms. This allows them both to work with examples on a scale not possible with a calculator, and to dedicate their time to complex tasks that develop their understanding, rather than procedural drills that are generally automated outside of the classroom.

The best tool for the job

Crucially, the learning curve for using spreadsheets is gentle; it’s no harder to learn how to do math with this technology than with a graphing calculator. This contrasts with doing mathematics in a more advanced programming language, the learning of which may take up a whole course in itself. I

n addition, as students move onto some of the advanced features of spreadsheets, such as logical operations, they will be introduced to the fundamental features of programming, preparing them for this kind of course at the college level.
For this reason, high school algebra can, and should, be taught using spreadsheets.

To help make this a reality, my colleagues and I have run workshops for teachers who want to integrate these materials into their math classrooms. The feedback we receive is overwhelmingly positive, with teachers noting that certain topics, such as recursive functions and function tables, become meaningful in spreadsheets, rather than something they address because it’s in the standards, and never bring up again.

In addition, our research on schools using spreadsheets in the classroom shows students make significant mathematical progress over the course of the year.

I mentioned that, in the real world, mathematical specialists such as my officemates use spreadsheets often and graphing calculators never. This first means that teaching students math with spreadsheets is great for career readiness. Perhaps more significantly, though, it gives a hint as to which is more effective.

There are no state standards telling companies what technology they can use; they just pick what works best. If that was graphing calculators, then there would be graphing calculators in every office. Teaching math with spreadsheets is simply giving our students the best tools for the job.

Jack Marley-Payne is the director of research at Financial Life Cycle Education; he investigates effective education in mathematics and personal finance.

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