I used to be afraid of them. You know, those things that are in bins. Those things that are kept locked away. Those things that only come out if the real lesson is done…Manipulative. Remember the good old days of worksheets and answers in the back of the textbook?
Worksheets provided a structure, a box, a situation where I was able to identify correct or incorrect. I thought this was how math should be taught because that was how I was taught. I learned early on in my teaching career that this model has changed. The method was no longer about transferring knowledge from teacher to student, memorizing rote skills, seeing who could be the fastest (grade 4 winner for mad minute, I figured out the system). It’s about understanding the why and how and making connections, going deeper then the just the answer.
When you add in tools like units and rods, or pattern blocks and tangrams, you create an environment where students can touch and feel the math. They can shift, build, decompose, and make discoveries. Manipulative don’t always fit on a page, or follow a multiple choice format. They provide an opportunity for students to think outside of the box, developing a richer experience that promotes authenttic understanding.
I have found them to be a gateway to discussions, discoveries, and even more questions. Today I had a great opportunity to see students applying their knowledge and understanding of fractions to discuss the possibilities of halving a unit within a 5 unit hole to make equal parts. The students debated and discussed, I didn’t have to prompt or follow up, they questioned the work and justified their reasons…it was beautiful, it was something I couldn’t have experienced with a textbook.
I am not anti-textbook or anti-worksheet, I am pro-manipulative.