Fun or fear? Spreadsheets for Problem Solving in the Primary Classroom – fun over fear!

Spreadsheets - fun or fear?Mention spreadsheets to some teachers and there may be a visible shudder!  For those unfamiliar with the use of spreadsheets in a primary classroom they don’t tend to conjure up ideas of a fun activity for pupils.  Part of the reason for that is that for those who have used spreadsheets in their adult life, or are aware of their uses,  it has often been the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel used for business applications that has been their experience.  Microsoft Excel is an extremely powerful and versatile tool for those who know how to use it.  For those just starting out it looks somewhat daunting to use.  Part of the reason for that is that it opens as a blank page with an array of toolbars and menus.

But the “what if” question in a mathematics or numeracy lesson in a primary clasroom is exactly where a spreadsheet comes into its own.  Having a bank of pre-made classroom-related real-life examples of number problems presented in a visually engaging way, and in a spreadsheet tool which makes the toolbars more child-friendly, seems to do the trick.  So if a pupil can change a number in a list and see, as if by magic, how that changes the total, it gives more time in the classroom for the important “what would happen if I changed this number” question – rather than the mechanics of addition.  Of course a skilled teacher will incorporate mental maths and thinking time for a class to try to predict an answer before getting the spreadsheet to do the chore.  And that adds to the fun.  It also reinforces the need for mental maths – checking even, by estimation for larger claculations, that a predicted answer is matched by the output of a spreadsheet calculation – it being an important lesson that “garbage in, garbage out” applies, so when setting up a spreadsheet a test with some data gives the answer predicted so that users can rely on the information later given.

In a primary school there is a need for a clear progression of data handling activities involving graph-making tools and spreadsheets. The emphasis is on finding child-centred contexts which quickly grasp the imagination of the pupil to provide engaging activities, where the children can have fun while learning through the use of number-modelling software. The following links are to resources which try to emphasise that, far from being what some adults may consider dry number-crunching tools, if presented in imaginative ways and at an appropriate level for the pupils, spreadsheet tools can provide an outlet for creativity with numbers.

Spreadsheet software which is available to all Falkirk primary schools includes RM Magic, RM Starting Graph, 2Simple Infant Video Toolkit and Microsoft Excel.  The addition of speech, as well as child-friendly visually appealing and child-centred classroom-related activities distiguishes RM number Magic, 2Simple Infant Video Toolkit and RM Starting Graph from Microsoft Excel.  Excel still has its place and links to resources aimed at primary schools using Excel are also given below. Excel Online as part of Microsoft Office 365 (available to all school in Scotland using Glow) also provides an online browser-based version of Excel which means that learners can access a spreadsheet tool which automatically saves into the cloud (and available from  any device anywhere) and which is also able to have multiple collaborators working on the same spreadsheet. Excel as part of Office 365 is also available to access via mobile app for either smartphone or tablet – all connecting to the user’s OneDrive online cloud storage, or into a class space in Microsoft Teams, updating in real time. Google Sheets (online spreadsheet application) and Apple Numbers app provide further free alternatives for schools.

Infant Video Toolkit from 2Simple is nothing to do with video (other than having a bank of excellent tutorial/class leson videos for using with the program with a class). Click here for more about 2 Simple Infant Video Toolkit.  This comprises six programs for early years introducing basic skills, and supported by excellent video lessons aimed at teachers using them with the pupils (that’s where the “video” fits in the title!).   The spreadsheet elements are 2Count (exploring counting with pictograms) and 2Graph (making graphs, bar charts & pie charts in seconds).  This program is designed for the youngest pupils in primary school.  The software is very visual with the activity clearly displayed and the associated videos created as lessons for the primary classroom, designed for use with an interactive whiteboard if available.  There are several classroom related real life curricular topic uses for the spreadsheet element of the program – and while they really are spreadsheets the entry to their use does not immediately look like what a spreadsheet would look like.  The Infant Video Toolkit does not attempt to be everything to everyone – it has a specific target user age group in mind and presents the tools at exactly the right level for them.  The combination of the video lessons (designed to be very effective if used at the interactive whiteboard with pupils) with the ease of use of the program make this ideal for introducing the idea of entering information on a spreadsheet and displaying it in graphical form for ease of then interpreting the information presented at a level appropriate to the early stages of the primary school. Infant video tool kit also makes up part of Purple Mash online subscription service, giving home access too for subscribers.

RM Starting Graph does what it says on the label! It is a spreadsheet program which comes bundled with pre-made example files for use in the classroom.  And it is aimed at being able to be used at early stages of the primary school.  In addition it is set by default to be in “touch” mode which means by clicking on the object (such as chosen eye colour) the spreadsheet increases the number and the graph automatically increases.  It re-scales graphs automatically. The in-built pre-loaded files also have images already included so younger pupils simply click on their selected picture to be able to see the resultant graph.

The in-built examples all include an on-screen question or task sheet with the opportunity for pupils to enter their responses and print if required.  These are also useful for teachers as starters for ten in thinking about questions to ask pupils in order to raise the use of the program from merely recording information to being able to ask questions at various levels to support interpretation of the information (at a level appropriate to the understanding of pupils).

The in-built examples include the following: Parking Survey; Car Ramps; Car Colour; Eye Colour; Favourite Fruit; Hair Colour; Party Planning; Pet Shop; and Travel Survey.This tool has been used effectively by teachers at the older stages of primary school since the speed of entry of information, and immediate graphing, makes it very accessible.  Pupils can select from a range of graph types.  And for older pupils wishing to type in numbers (particularly where larger numbers are involved) it’s a quick click of the “Yellow” touch mode icon to take the program into “editing” green level which lets users then input larger numbers by typing rather than by clicking.  Often the difference between  early uses of spreadsheets and graphing and use with older primary pupils is both in the display options (which the green editing level of RM Starting graph provides) and in the interpretation – the questiosn asked of the pupils or by the pupils using the information.  So a move from “which fruit is most popular?” to predicting in a science experiment with a model car and a ramp how high you would need to make the ramp in order for the model car to travel a specified distance.

RM Number Magic – click here for An Introduction to Spreadsheets using RM Number Magic. This has a bank of built-in pupil activities manipulating numbers such as Flowers, Bus Fares, Christmas Party.

To access these activities:

  1. open the program in Yellow, Green or Blue Level
  2. File
  3. Open File
  4. Exercises
  5. Choose “Flowers”On each example there is a tab along the bottom of the worksheet called “Report Sheet” which gives instructions and in some cases a “fill in the blanks” on-screen sheet for the pupils to complete as they work through the tasks.

The in-built activity files are: Force Measurer; Bus Fares; Car Hire Firm; Christmas Party; Cola Price Survey; Electricity Bill; Elephants; Eleven Times Table; Fabulous Fruit; Farm Visit; Fencing Fields; Flowers; Function Machine; Hackney Carriage; Hit the Target; House Valuation; My Age; Newspaper Survey; Number Patterns; Pentathlon; Plants; Pocket Money; Postage Stamps; Reaction Times; Steelworks; Sweets; Taxi Fares; The Milk Round; The Tube; Think of a Number; Traffic Survey; Video Recording; Weather.

Number Magic also has a number pattern creator built-in – useful to show patterns of times-tables.  Click Activities , Number Patterns , Create Grid, Show Pattern of 2 with pattern of 3 (or whatever tables you wish to show).

For further information about how to use RM Number Magic click here:

RM Number Magic has four levels – youngest pupils would use yellow level – this presents them with few menus and larger icons.  As users progress through the levels Green then blue and finally Red they are presented with more and more icons and menus.  Red Level behaves in a very similar way to Microsoft Excel – but retains the speaking toolbars and access to a school-friendly picture bank.

Microsoft Excel – there is a wide range of resources online using Microsoft Excel as the tool to put spreadsheets in a context suitable for use by pupils in a primary classroom.  Some links have been provided below.  Some of these provide tutorials in the use of Excel while others provide the ready-made files along with classroom teaching notes. Excel Online is available for free to schools using Microsoft Office 365 (all schools in Scotland using Glow can access Microsoft Excel Online as part of Office 365. It’s available in OneDrive or as part of Microsoft Teams for classes so you can either create spreadsheets individually or collectively so that multiple learners can collaborate on the same Excel Online spreadsheet at the same time on different devices from anywhere).

Click here for a brief outline of Microsoft Excel Online – this includes how-to guides to the main features of using Excel Online

Click here for some guides to undertaking basic tasks in Microsoft Excel Online

Tips for Microsoft Excel Online:

More links to specific features and how-to guides for using Microsoft Excel Online:

The Beginner’s Guide to Microsoft Excel Online – a handy guide by Matthew Guay describing with screenshot illustrations how to undertake a variety of tasks in Microsoft Excel Online, from starting a new spreadsheet file, looking at options in the menu ribbons, applying functions, adding charts and tables, using the survey tool, sharing and collaborating with others, using comments and more.

Pivot Tables in Microsoft Excel Online– while pivot tables are not a function of spreadsheets which beginners may likely use, it may be handy to know that Microsoft Excel Online has this feature and that this link provides a guide to how to use them in the online version of Microsoft Excel

Users of Glow can access Microsoft Excel Online from within Glow by clicking on the OneDrive tile on the Glow Launchpad (from where Excel Online can be accessed from the 9-square waffle), or via Microsoft Teams Files tab (for Excel Online spreadsheets shared with the rest of the class Team) or directly from the Microsoft Excel Online login entering the Glow email address – which is usually something along the lines of the form which will then take you to the usual Glow login page.

Co-edit a Microsoft Excel Online spreadsheet – here a link to show the steps to collaborating on a Microsoft Excel Online spreadsheet with multiple users.

How to add a chart in Microsoft Excel Online

Excel Online within Office 365 tutorial – shared by Edinburgh University, with descriptions which apply also to Glow users

Teaching spreadsheets regardless of platform

Teaching Spreadsheets – A guide to introducing Spreadsheets to Primary Students – this blogpost by Richard Poth details the generic skills of learning about working with spreasheets particularly for primary schools. It sets out a progression of skills in getting to know spreasheets at different stages through primary levels. It looks at developing the use of spreadsheets regardless of the platform, seeing the word spreasheets as an umbrella term, so the actvitities apply whether using Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Apple Numbers or any other.


Apple iPad spreadsheets app Numbers

The Apple iPad spreadsheets app Numbers is free to download. Click on the links below to see examples from Maddiston Primary School in Falkirk Council of how they used the Numbers spreadsheet app
The link below provides a tutorial on using the Apple Numbers spreadsheet app on an iPad
Click on this Sway which provides a short how-to guide to creating a simple table in Apple Numbers iPad app, with a column of names and a column of scores beside each name, from which a graph can be created. The same steps can be used for any class survey or other similar activity.
 Click on this link to see what Antonine Primary School in Falkirk Council shared on Twitter about their use of the Numbers iPad spreadsheet app for a class survey

Free spreadsheet tools: Where pupils or staff wish to work on spreadsheets outwith school, and where they don’t have access to the above programs there are free alternatives available which can open Microsoft Excel files.  One such program is part of the free Open Office software download from

Another free online Google G Suite for Education Sheets spreasheet online tool Docs at is a versatile and easy to use free online tool aimed at use by children where they can enter the information on an online spreadsheet by making choices and entering the information.  Then the user can choose the form they wish to save the information, either online or downloaded or sent by e-mail in a variety of formats including picture or pdf.
Click below for a video introduction to Create-a-graph:
The following link is to a video showing Create-a-graph in use in a classroom activity
Primary Technology has a free online Pictogram Creator on their site. This lets you choose from pre-created templates, such as favourite sport, fruit or colour. Or you can create your own. You can also add new columns with ease. And when you type a column name the Pictogram Creator automatically presents you with an image (though you can also easily browse to other presented image choices). Then to use you simply click on the column to increase or decrease the number of items – so will work well either with a PC or interactive whiteboard. A nice feature is that you can also embed the tool onto another site. A nice visual introduction to data handling.
Maths is Fun Online Graph Creation tool lets you choose the type of graph, add the data and then display the chart online. You can edit the columns and title, as well as choose to display the data on the chart, or to show the information as a table. Anything created can be printed from the online tool. The speed with which these charts can be created and the way in which it can all be done by clicking onto the graph makes it ideal for use with an interactive whiteboard.
Chartle.Net – a free online tool which lets you create, without registering, a whole series of different forms of graph, chart or map. These created charts can be embedded elsewhere (and will be interactive) or can be downloaded and shared as images. Here’s a video tutorial about using
Internet4Classrooms – interactives for data handling – this site provides links to various online tools for creating and graphs of different types, whether bar graphs, pie charts, line graphs or more. Each listed tool to to another site and some have activities suggested, others simply let the user change the data to see what is created, to be able to ask “what happens if…” questions or just to record information in different ways.

Interactivate Interactive Activities – a series of interactive graphing tools which are aimed at upper primary school (second level in Scottish schools) with inbuilt activities where suggested activities have guides, questions and suggested tasks but also where the tools can be used to add your own information and create activities round the tool.

Want to know more about using Excel?

SpreadsheetoSpreadsheeto – if you are looking to find out more about using Excel spreadsheets then look no further than this free online resource with video tutorials and a range of posts about specific tools within Excel which explain as a step-by-step guide how to undertake a variety of tasks forwhich Excel spreadsheets can be used.


  1. Mrs Garioch says:

    Was browsing the blog, and found these documents – they look easy to use! Look forward to using them.

  2. Pingback: ICT | Pearltrees

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