Try this and you’ll be calling it Sexcel, not Excel

10th June 2016 at 00:00

There’s an anti-inspiration poster I’m fond of, a kind of antidote to those cosy memes you see passed around the web that couple a sentimental aphorism with a picture of a dolphin at dawn, or something. “Meetings,” it booms. “Because all of us is stupider than one of us.”

Each time I hear “it’s a Marmite thing” I have to suppress a quiet rage within. Apart from anything else, Marmite love-or-hate polarity is not even true. Many of us are completely indifferent about it. The population divide is surely much more razor-sharp between those who love repeatedly saying “it’s a Marmite thing” and those who loathe repeatedly hearing this glib little phrase.

A better way of conveying such polarity – certainly in teaching – is to consider something to be a “Microsoft Excel thing”. Some teachers tend to become utterly besotted with it, others have to be dragged to it kicking and screaming. Very few teachers fall somewhere in the middle.

Many declare that they “hate” Excel. It’s a hostility perhaps born out of its strong (and increasing) associations with expansive spreadsheets on student progress, targets and results – and the programme’s subsequent links to data-obsession, extra workload and accountability.

The consequence is that many teachers never get to know – or even want to know – Excel’s more sensuous and alluring qualities within. They never discover the pearls of great learning hidden in the sea below that bleak and scaly looking surface. They see Excel as the rather plain and dull sister to the seemingly more glamorous and engaging PowerPoint.

This is both cruel and unfair. PowerPoint can give you a great time, but I, for one, would always ask Excel to the prom ahead of its sometimes rather showy and shallow sibling.

Applying just one formula can open the door to whole new ways of working with a class. Take the “randomiser” for instance. With a suitably adapted image of a tennis court as the back-cloth (with the class names spread across the cells inside the court, left of room versus right) a whole group can be fully engaged in revision “tie-break tennis” – questions and answerers flashing up mid-court via the F9 key. No one ever knows when a shot (a question) is coming their way and the rally continues until a question cannot be answered.

I have adapted that same formula for many other games, including football. It’s: =CHOOSE(INT(RAND()*3)+1, “Megan”, “Ella”, “Sam”)

Obviously the length of the formula depends on how many names are in each “team”. The “3” assumes a team of that number, but it’s obviously going to be a higher figure. Use the same idea for your list of random questions. You will grow to love that formula, I promise.

Excel sceptics might question the program’s value for deeper learning, and yet I now use that same formula for more serious, “perfect paragraph” work on the screen.

Working left to right, each enlarged Excel cell/box contains the hidden name of someone who, upon revelation of their name, has to build on the point or explanation of the previously named student.

Not as sparky as the games sessions, but deeply satisfying afterwards for all concerned.

All of that from just one formula! The great thing about my relationship with Excel is that we both know we have only just begun.

Within this vast and beautiful ocean there are scores of formulae still to discover, millions of cells as yet unvisited. And none of this spreadsheet-free Excel is the least bit dull or geeky. Frankly, this should be called Sexcel rather than Excel. I would urge all doubters to try it out.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today