During a 4th grade substituting assignment, the teacher left a set of word problems for the kids to do. A bunch of these word problems involved division, and the students were directed to use their counting blocks. As I walked around the room, I saw kids doing just about everything a kid will do with giant leggo-type blocks. There were guns, there were swords, there were towers. Some kids were using the blocks to work the word problems, but many of the students who wanted to use them for good were having trouble. My role morphed from teaching math to teaching the kids how to use the counting blocks. One word problem called for dividing 125 by a variety of numbers. There is a large margin of error while counting 125 of anything, and with a string of problems that all rely on a 100% accurate count, it felt to me that the kids’ time could have been better spent. When do manipulatives cross the line from helpful to hurtful?
A great article titled Teacher Learning and Mathematical Manipulatives: A Collective Case Study About Teacher Use in Elementary and Middle School Mathematics Lessons by Laurel Puchner, Ann Taylor, Barbara O’Donnell and Kathleen Fick, outlines one of the many problems that can arise while using manipulatives in math. This article is a worthwhile read, especially for those teachers wondering why manipulatives don’t seem to work as well as advertised.
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