Spreadsheets and the Rule of Four

A little over 20 years ago the Harvard Calculus Consortium sought to remake the calculus curriculum. “We believe that the calculus curriculum needs to be completely re-thought,” began the text by Andrew Gleason and Deborah Hughes Hallett, both of Harvard University. They sought to get “our students to think.” In doing so they proposed “The Rule of Three.” “Our project is based on our belief that these three aspects of calculus—graphical, numerical, analytical—should all be emphasized throughout.” The Rule of Three, today often known today as The Rule of Four with the now addition of verbal, rests at the heart of math education. While the Calculus Consortium’s book may no longer own major market share, it has had a remarkable influence on all Calculus textbooks and indeed on all math textbooks in both K-12 and college. It is a widely shared belief that such multiple-linked representations must be central to 21st century pedagogy. It is clear that students learn in different ways. It is certain that they need to see mathematics from different perspectives.

Spreadsheets are Rule of Four platforms. They are function machines which naturally represent mathematics graphically,
numerically, analytically, and verbally. They show a function as a graph, as a table, as a formula, and we can describe them with text and visuals. They did not start out that way. The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc invented by Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin was designed to be a visual calculator to automate the accountants’ worksheets. Three years after VisiCalc’s debut in 1979, Mitch Kapor added graphs and tables to create Lotus 123 which brought the IBM PC into every business. And Excel from Microsoft came out for the new Macintosh 2 years later not only simplifying the interface but adding beautiful texts and visuals to spreadsheets. Today, the mature spreadsheet technology is the standard quantitative tool for business worldwide. It is not only available on every major platform, but its format and design are the basis for displaying and interacting with quantity on the Web.

In a spreadsheet we can write a formula, use that formula to create a table of values, and use that table of values to make a wide variety of different graphs and charts. Change the formula and the table and graph changes automatically. Change the table and the graph changes automatically. Spreadsheets are dynamic and highly interactive. They even let you embed variable quantities in text to add units to quantities our dynamic values to verbal descriptions. Once a student builds a model in a spreadsheet, it is naturally a multiple-linked representation that can played with and explored. Spreadsheet models designed with functional thinking as multiple-linked representations are therefore simulations of which students can ask “What if…”

If you use Link Sheets in your classroom, if you believe that every student has a learning style, if you like to have students explore different representations, if you want to get your “students to think” then try using our What if Math spreadsheets or develop your own built on the Rule of Four.