Three Sheets to the Wind

Some thirty years ago when I was training to be an accountant we changed from using Lotus 1-2-3 on Apricot PCs to using early Excel* on early Macs. Since that time few have been the weeks that have gone by when I didn’t use Excel for one thing or another. It is a versatile, efficient and (if you know how to drive it) creative means of doing many things involving numbers and text (its especially good for text manipulation and clean-up).

So based on all that I would have the following suggestion for schools.

I have seen Excel used for so many things in school, from very basic list manipulation all the way through to fully featured Parents Evening appointments systems. And frankly, for the following reasons, it has to stop.

Here’s why:

  • It is a chore that can be done more efficently. When we have considerable issues with workload the more automated we can make data analysis the better. Unless you are dealing with exactly the same dataset each time then the use of Excel involves adding to workload. And often it is out of hours workload which imposes additional pressures on the workforce.
  • More often than not, this level of data manipulation and analysis is carried out by a Deputy or Assistant Headteacher. This means it is a very expensive way of working (unless you’re relying on that out of hours thing).
  • Linked to the workload issue is that of succession. When the data guru leaves you are left with the issue of having to either replace that person like for like, Excel skills and all, or training someone up to take over. Either way, working someone else’s spreadsheet is rarely a good experience.
  • And finally on the workforce element, you are restricted to that one person doing the job. If they are sick, or overburdened with other work, then who is going to create the analysis?
  • There are issues with accuracy. Any complex data analysis can lead to errors creeping in (especially when undertaken by a tired deputy on a deadline). Why have a situation where every school is testing a similar spreadsheet for, say, working out Progress 8. The hours spent will rack up and many will be left with a spreadsheet that has a flaw in the formulae. Which could be a disaster.
  • There are often issues with consistency. Rarely have I seen data analysis presented via excel the same way twice. The desire to tinker, to add more information, charts, pivot tables often leads you to be looking at different styles of analysis year on year. This makes meaningful longitudinal comparisons harder to make.
  • And finally there is my biggest bugbear. As soon as you send the sheet out to people the data you’ve delivered is out of date. Everyone has their own copy. Which they all change a little and before you know it there are dozens of different versions of your data flying around that you have no control over. Yes, I know about Google Docs and Office 365, but yes I know about Google Docs and Office 365.

There are obviously occasions where there is a need for ad-hoc data analysis when Excel can be of use. My very strong advice would be that you keep that kind of use to a bare minimum. Use it to prototype and then get it automated.

So I’m obviously not an advocate of teachers using spreadsheets. But I would go further than this.

I see no good reason to teach children how to use Excel either.

“But”, I hear you cry, “spreadsheet skills are greatly sought after by industry.” Yes, you’re right, they are. But I’ll let you into a little secret. Industry are better at teaching people to use Excel than schools are. Indeed, there’s a whole industry dedicated to it, such is level of spreadsheet skills that people come out of schools with. And that isn’t a dig at schools. It’s a recognition that some things are better taught when you know how you are going to use it. The very versatility of Excel I discussed at the beginning means that different industries use Excel in very different ways. And they’re better taught by someone who is expert in the use of spreadsheets in the context they will be used in.

By all means give students templates to use for things like science data analysis and other such uses, but don’t expect them to produce their own. In the time that schools have, few children learn how to use spreadsheets to any useful level to ensure that they would create the right thing. Unless, of course, you are planning a party or perhaps still running a video rental store.

And now I’m just going to go away and produce a spreadsheet of just how many friends I have left in the school ICT community.


* Other spreadsheet packages are (apparently) available.


5 thoughts on “Three Sheets to the Wind

  1. Having supported numerous data managers at school and done the job myself I would agree that spreadsheets are not the right tool for multiple entry data analysis. They grow out of the personal computer revolution whose roots are in one person use. Sure they have been adapted for multiple entry but unlike a real database their use is clunky and often not very secure. On more than one occasion a member of SLT was in floods of tears after sorting data without selecting all the columns and had then saved the result or secured the sheet only to forget their password. Thank goodness for proper data recovery and a good backup strategy. There are lots of better analysis tools lots of Hants schools use Target Tracker and SIMS is manageable if you are using good templates to name a few.

    However I do think Spreadsheet use is useful for graphing and basic number manipulation and all pupils should have at least a few meaningful experiences in primary school.

  2. Hear, hear! I am that AHT, who has spent hours doing just that with excel previously as a department head now as SLT. This year all exam analysis for every dept will be done on the same software package using same method and not waste department heads time. Hopefully all done before Sep 1st. We will then spend our energy talking about what the data shows and where to improve teaching not the analysis methodology.

    1. It really would be interesting to know just how much time is spent in schools on spreadsheets in order to save a few hundred pounds on a custom data system. I also have concerns about the level of stress it puts on people because the data “has to be right”.

  3. Interesting. I think there are lots of ways you can use spreadsheets in Maths teaching. Usually I use it to demonstrate things “live” especially teaching sequences. Occasionally I get kids to use it and I am shocked that many of them don’t have the basic understanding of e.g. SUMing a column of numbers and think maybe I should be teaching them as they clearly aren’t learning it in ICT lessons. Your comments about the industry they eventually go into being better placed to train them kind of makes sense, but I think if they don’t have a basic understanding from school, something is wrong.
    But I’m more interested in your comments on teachers / management using it. I think a really useful follow up post to this would be some explanation of alternative ways to do the analysis. Trying to create reports on SIMS? Painful in my experience.

    1. Using SiMs for anything is painful, but that’s another issue altogether!

      The main thrust of what I’m saying is that if an analysis is important to the functioning of the school then there should be a system that produces it as a matter of course from the data that exists within the school. An obvious example of this is exam results where rather than messing around in Excel it would would make much more sense to use one of the many exam analysis packages that are available.

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