Asilomar #7: Excel

Session Title

“Algebra Techniques Using an Excel Spreadsheet”


Chris Mackenzie. Teacher, Palomar Valley High School.


This guy has pitched a tent in the SCUD missile-marked territory between me and Christian Long. I suspect Christian would’ve enjoyed this guy’s unabashed amateurism, how he acknowledged at the start that he was just a teacher, not an expert, that he just really liked Excel’s applications for Algebra. When anyone corrected his math or technique, he’d say “You’ve discovered one of my weaknesses” or “Wow. That is a really good question.”

I was blogging inside of fifteen minutes, as soon as it became clear he wasn’t going to teach us anything. We were just going to talk, one amateur to a bunch of others.

Maybe this is only me but I would have been entirely unoffended had he baldly asserted his expertise and taught me how to make some of his dazzling – truly dazzling – Excel spreadsheets, with sliders that controlled variables which manipulated some beautiful graphs.

But in one-and-a-half hours I learned one Excel term (“CONCATENATE”).

That’s all.

Presentation Notes

He would open up Excel file after Excel file and demonstrate their operation but not their construction. For ninety minutes. He chided those of us who had opened up unrelated browser windows but, I mean, come on: if your kids are bored in class, is that their fault? Or yours.


Testaments to advance planning: his laptop’s hard drive failed the day before and he didn’t anticipate that every computer in the lab would be running Vista and Office 2007. Whoops.

Sufficient Megapixels

For Your Consideration

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. The picture here is the one that makes me jealous. Warm enough to sit outside and socialize? The beach I could leave it or take it, but I am missing quality time outside.

  2. Note to self — ask Dan the following:

    “After reading every one of his Asilomar presentation posts this week with pleasure and look-forward-to-it interest (in spite of not caring a lick about math or acetate sheets — he smiles), why is that I am suddenly link-burdened with a connection to a guy who taught nothing him while opting for “dazzling” instead?” Perhaps my name came up on the spinning dart board, more a way-distant math probability than anything more provocative.

    Ask Dan: “Did I actually do something to warrant this link-connection save for the assumed use of “amateur” as a debate joust in some distant blog comment stream that must by now have just a little layer of dust on it? And if so, is this the best you got, Kid Square Root of Rock?”

    Wait for answer.

    In the meantime, be happy. Actually, be thrilled — giddy in that I-don’t care-if-nobody-is-watching click-yo-heels in the air three times giddy sort of way — that I no longer have to spend any legit professional time with spreadsheets (no matter how cool “sliders” may be). I’ll take my English lit novels and soccer practice, thank you very much.

    Oh, and the ability to actually pull off that graceful amateur/expert dance better than your average education conference ‘pro’ when the audience files in.

    From the cheap seats — Christian

    P.S. I’m assuming that Dan will also link my way when there is a more obvious connection to be made than simply the use of the word “amateur”, otherwise one may be inclined to suspect that the “rage against the 2.0 pundit machine” stance is taking on a slightly passe tone…when we know dang well there’s better material (and targets) out there than little ol’ me. (he smiles)

    P.P.S. Welcome back from the beach, fella. Curious, though, about one thing. Since you already live in Cali, is it that revolutionary to stand by the ocean in order to drive home the “I’m here and you ain’t” message? Had Hasselhoff done a jog-by cameo, then I’d have been impressed. Real impressed. Perhaps at Asilomar 2.0?

  3. Didn’t mean to complicate this. I was just sitting there, watching several people enjoy the conversation but feeling disconnected and dissatisfied, myself, and it seemed to me kind of emblematic of our amateurs v. experts conversation earlier.

    You seem to gather energy from people talking, no matter their level of expertise at the start of the conversation or at the end, and I personally find that enervating. I want to grow as far as 90 minutes will take me and maybe that’s a matter of preference but, regardless, I find it objectively true that “expert” isn’t a four-letter word.

  4. Dan, really appreciating the jist and vibe of your response here. Because there was a decidedly ‘playful’ tone to my previous comment (at least that was how I was feeling as I was thinking/typing), there definitely is no need for you to worry a second’s worth of consideration about the “complicate this” side of things.

    Keep in mind. I wasn’t there in Malibu with you this past week, so 99.999% of what you have been writing was 100% yours to own and lay claim to. I’m just a drive-by curiosity seeker at the moment (heightened slightly by the ego-link you provided, of course). The remaining 0.001% (hope the English teacher managed that correctly) that could be fair game on the open market re: amateurs (et al) is definitely worth exploring from your vantage point. I was — again — just being playful, so ignore any previously assumed tension or challenge on my part other than the smile-inducing irony of now being the go-to blogger for the from-downtown “amateur” 3-pointer. However, if it helps push a larger conversation further, feel free to continue using me as a link-ish Trojan Horse, scarecrow, or straight man. It’s all good.

    Looking at your 2nd paragraph (in your comment above), there is truth in your assessment that I gain energy from folks talking, exploring, digging around in the rough idea chest. This is true for me as a teacher and as a conference or consulting presenter, and as an audience member, too. Whatever expertise there might be in the room is a launching pad for me, not a destination. Same with the ‘naive’ question or ‘amateur’ voice. All a place to start, not unsaddle.

    As to the “expert” as four-letter word, you and I agree, regardless of the ‘path’ we take to get there to explain what we mean. “Expert” is hardly a pejorative in real time, although sometimes in conversation it might be taken too seriously (in my book).

    I suppose that I take the “expert” thing for granted when thinking of teachers. It’s the default, right? And forever it has been the ‘point’ of it all, right? The only distinction for me now (other than semantics) is that I long ago left the need to outwardly prove that a) I knew more than my students (I do; I always will) and b) that being “expert” is the ultimate point of teaching (their learning is, not my teaching). Instead, I want my expertise (in terms of raw knowledge, experience, or instinct) to be confident enough to allow me to take on the ‘devil’s advocate’ position from a million points of view rather than to need confirmation as to my being the sole judge at the proverbial podium.

    I’m also — this is a clear bias for me — much more interested in being a ‘bridge’ between disciplines, a ‘gestalt’ kind of guy, who wants to find new ‘knowledge’ while collaborating with my students and colleagues along the way. Being the smartest guy in the room as far as the DNA of a single discipline I am hired to teach holds little value for me today or as I look at the horizon line of my educational career.

    And in that sense, my friend, I embrace the “amateur” status on all fronts. (With enough hidden ‘expertise’ to never be gun-shy when it comes to engaging the predictable and never-imagined questions that come our way).

    Thanks again for your follow-up comment, Dan. Helps me re-think the original premise…and get out of the drive-by semantic hollarin’ game. Keep up the work. You have become one of the few voices in the ‘sphere that is worth keeping an eye on these days. Glad to have you as one of my guides/teacher!

    Cheers, C