An educational blog for teachers and students.

The Living Spreadsheet: A method that improves on jigsaws and provides students with active learning


Few teaching methods use tactile or bodily-kinesthetic learning despite the knowledge that this approach motivates students. One only has to look at physical education classes to see some students enjoy kinesthetic learning. The Living Spreadsheet offers an example of: using this approach and promoting a more complete acquisition of knowledge in a short time. In addition, students see how a spreadsheet program works, as they assume the role of data, to expand understanding.

The need for speed

New and revised state standards haunt history teachers who must cover vast time periods and significant and lengthy events within the confines of the school year. Worse, the avalanche of testing makes the inculcation of this data, albeit even for brief periods, of monumental importance to government officials and parents.

So social studies and history teachers wrestle with how to teach students to think critically about events, obtain the structured knowledge, and still stick to a fly’s life curriculum timetable. In addition, lessons should allow students to capitalize on as many of their multiple intelligences as possible while presenting the information in an assessable manner.

Using spreadsheet programming concepts

When business and industry have a great deal of data to evaluate and manipulate, they use an accounting device known as a spreadsheet. Confined in each column and row of the spreadsheet is information from the objective data obtained and found relevant to the question to be solved.

Using formulas and a computer’s massive ability to manipulate data, a spreadsheet program can produce answers to a simple question, such as what is the best time to sell ice cream. Spreadsheets instantly take into account a variety of variables, such as season, temperature, income, community demographics, time of day and traffic.

A teacher can use this same format to teach about events that share common elements. Instead of a computer program, each student becomes the carrier of data. This enables the teacher to manipulate this information, and thus the students, to produce many different results and enhance the pupils’ view of events. This method may also incorporate art, map making, math, English, and history as well as public speaking, and cooperative learning, and it places an emphasis on the rarely used kinesthetic learning style.

Handling the Civil War

For example, the students in a history class must know the major battles of the Civil War. To acquire this knowledge, in many classes students would compose an essay, usually featuring chronological order as a theme. A few lectures, a video, and perhaps a reference book or Internet research yield the essay.

Using the human spreadsheet method, students need only become experts about one

battle. They prepare a poster that includes essential data such as technology present, numbers involved, leaders, locations and dates. They create a map of the battlefield, make appropriate charts and graphs on such variables as number killed, hours of battle, and total forces involved. Finally, they create a drawing of the conflict’s turning point.

Students as Data

When the students have completed this task, they are taken outside with their posters and lined-up in chronological order. What the students have done is create the raw data to make a spreadsheet. In other words, they are bits of data which can now be manipulated to yield different results using the same information.

Once the students are lined up, the teacher asks them to reassemble themselves by states. The resulting chaos combines kinesthetic learning, public speaking and critical decision making as the students seek their place in the spreadsheet columns. In a few, sometimes hectic, minutes, the students have reassembled by the state where the battle occurred. They have shouted out the name of their state a dozen times, listened to others bellow, and finally found themselves realigned in several groups over the course of the restructuring.

A teacher can now ask them to locate the battles in their state on a map of the state, but regardless they are going to understand that the Civil War did not occur at one place and at one time. Now, they can be reassembled in a multitude of ways such as the date or number of fatalities of their event. The point is students start to see the scope of the Civil War. In other words, the students and their peers create subsets of data for evaluation by moving around. In realigning, the students are simply reacting to “copy," "cut," and "paste" commands and should be informed of these operations to help them in their efforts. (This is especially helpful with students who have a background in computers and spreadsheet programs.) For example, you can cut Lee’s battles from the rest, paste them with the battles fought in Virginia, and the result will be a copy or production of a new set of data that they can reflect on and look for common threads as they synthesize the material.

Following this reshuffling of data, the students write an essay summarizing the Civil War using their newly acquired insights. The essays they produce are distinctive from those written by students using more traditional methods. These essays are alive with data and conclusions. Students make attempts to use what they have learned to justify unusual hypotheses that show the spreadsheet method has rekindled the thinking process. Seasons of the year, leading generals, the relationship between number killed and generals, the correlation between the month of battle, state, and winning side are all possibilities. The essays are refreshing to read and have the potential to create new ways for the students to align themselves and their data. For example, is there a relationship between the distance from a major railroad center and the number of fatalities? Does the age of the commanding officer have a correlation with the location of the battle? Is there a relationship between the number of soldiers and the number of casualties? The students can easily find the answers by restructuring their columns.

This method only takes about two hours of class time for the instructions, examples and spreadsheet alignments. The research, since it is limited to the students becoming experts on just one major battle, can be done in as little as three hours -- making it possible to cover the major battles of the Civil War in a week and allow more time to discuss the more complex cause-and-effect relationships that emerge during this time period. If more time is available, teachers can assign more details for the students to research.

This method works best if the subject matter has at least four or five variables. That could include the study of world leaders, presidents, states, wars and even heroes. The resulting manipulation of data, especially as the students are reforming themselves, stimulates the thinking process and breaks down prejudices that sometimes occur in crowded classrooms where chronological order seems mandated by calendar restraints.

Making Subjects More Relevant

The Living Spreadsheet concept can also work when attempting to make a subject more relevant to the student. If a student can relate to traits that he or she has, the lesson becomes personal and thus more meaningful and complete. For example, in the case of presidents, most projects require students to simply restructure the basic encyclopedic information in reports and essays. This research lacks insight and leaves the student uninvolved with the subject matter.

Using The Living Spreadsheet approach, the students use websites that contain presidential trivia, as well as more classical research sources, to prepare a poster that includes their president's efficiency ranking, major accomplishments, and the number of years served. The work can also include land acquisitions, significant foreign policy accomplishments and number of electoral votes received (1, 2).

The students next add those elements that make the presidents come “alive.” They have to copy the president's signature as best they can on the bottom of the poster as well as trace a picture of the president. They list whether the president was left or right handed, married, the number of children, type of pets they owned, if they went to college, if they were assassinated, if they served as a vice president, and even the height and weight of the president. All told they must have 15 personal facts about the president to go along with the basic historical research.

Using The Living Spreadsheet method, the students can arrange themselves into a variety of groupings from astrological signs, traits from the Chinese calendar, and illnesses. This information makes the presidents far more interesting to students. As bits of data, they realign themselves in arrays that provide insights and links far more complex than any other method. The resultant essays and research papers students write after this experience are rich with information that makes the presidents real. It also yields remarkable debates. It is not unusual for the left and right-handed presidents to be compared in the ranking to see which group has the highest historical ratings. I have seen students mark the heights of the presidents on the door, so they could visualize the differences in Madison and Lincoln better and debate whether the height of the president is relevant to his accomplishments.

Another byproduct of this method is that inactive students become part of the group, and it promotes debate rather than arguing. Interpersonal skills improve as each member of the class learns to depend on others. Of course, at the beginning, they all want to be one of the more famous presidents, but as The Living Spreadsheet starts to unfold, students take delight in the idiosyncrasies of their president and in sharing something others don’t already know.

Finally, The Living Spreadsheet combines critical thinking, kinesthetic, artistic, verbal, mathematical, spatial and interpersonal forms of intelligence. But more importantly, it makes learning more enjoyable for students and provides them with a valuable way to look at information. The realignment of data, the shifting of researched facts to search for cause and effect patterns, the comparing and contrasting of insights and evaluation and synthesis of information can be more clearly understood by the physical movements required. And, it enables teachers to cover a lot of information in a short period of time.

In the many years I have used this method, it has never failed to provide a learning experience for me as students develop insights and alignments I never imagined. For example, during a presidential spreadsheet, one student suggested we do the astrological signs based on birthdates. Another student got the signs and as the students were realigning themselves they realized that some of them had the same signs and, as statistically proven, at least one student in the class shared the same birthday as a president. Instantly, the presidents became much more human and their interest was enhanced. They also became very busy seeing if the “signs” yielded the traits the presidents exhibited during their term of office.

And, as for the Civil War battles, one student wanted to know if the day of the battle could be related to the number of casualties. So he realigned his fellow students in The Living Spreadsheet accordingly. Not a bad insight, and I wonder if that wouldn't that be an interesting essay to read.


North Central Regional Educational Laboratory researchers wrote about the importance of engaged learning, which they defined as a process in which students are actively seeking the information they need to accomplish a learning task.
The Laboratory report concluded this process to be one in which the “{students} play the role of researchers and navigators rather than spectators. They use higher-order thinking and act as problem solvers in the learning process. The teacher no longer is the ‘sage on the stage’ but rather the ‘guide on the side.’ He or she facilitates learning rather than controls it. . . . . Students ‘construct’ their own knowledge as they come across various information resources. This means they must develop process skills that allow them to investigate, classify, evaluate and communicate information. (3)

The Living Spreadsheet accommodates the Laboratory’s definition, as well as providing an avenue for authentic assessment, by moving knowledge from isolated facts to an application with relevance elsewhere. Students benefit by the ability to create concrete forms when confronted with problems and learn the value of seeing facts from a different perspective. This activity also gives value to what Howard Gardner described as kinesthetic or spatial intelligence. (4)