Is Excel more useful than algebra?


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One of the sillier online debates is an argument about the usefulness of algebra and other maths skills in a world where Excel is available on almost any screen.

To us this is silly because it’s not a simple either/or choice.  It’s about balance, a concept that’s not fashionable these days, sigh.

This all started with an article in the LA Times Modern high school math should be about data science — not Algebra 2 by Professor Jo Boaler and Prof. Steven D. Levitt famous as co-author of “Freakonomics.”.

The article makes the point that US maths education hasn’t adapted to the modern era where data analysis is paramount.  The UK and Canada, for example, have pivoted their math curriculum to spend more time on data science.

66% use Excel on a daily basis

An informal survey of podcast listeners suggests that almost two-thirds use Excel on a daily basis.

“ We surveyed 900 “Freakonomics” podcast listeners — a pretty nerdy group, we must admit — and discovered that less than 12% used any algebra, trigonometry or calculus in their daily lives. Only 2% use integrals or derivatives, the foundational building blocks of calculus. In contrast, a whopping 66% work with basic analytical software like Microsoft Excel on a daily basis.”

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There’s a ‘missing’ 20% not mentioned.

Maths education needed to understand Excel

Enter John Ewing, President of Math for America writing in Forbes defends algebra against what he sees as attacks.

“ Algebra isn’t facts and procedures—it’s thinking and understanding, and those skills are valuable, carrying over to real life”

As people who have written about Excel for over two decades, we’re inclined to agree, at least to the extent that it applies to using spreadsheets.

A working knowledge of math/maths and algebra is necessary to understand what Excel is doing.

There are many functions in Excel that are a mystery to anyone lacking basic mathematical knowledge.

More importantly, the ‘thinking and understanding’ or logic of algebra is necessary to understand complex Excel formulas.  How to break down a long formula to understand what it’s doing.

Many of that 66% using Excel are also using the skills they learnt in mathematics and algebra classes, whether they realise it or not.

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