by Marilyn Burns

From Marilyn Burns, a teacher and the nation's leading math innovator. Here she answers the pressing question: What are math manipulatives and why is my child using them in school?

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Manipulatives in Today's Classroom
Have you ever visited a new city and felt confused about finding your bearings--even if you had a map and directions? After a few days you probablygot a feel for the area, and even if you became lost from time to time, youcould count on familiar landmarks to help you on your way. And with enoughexploring, most likely you ventured with more confidence wherever you needed togo.

We can think of the value of firsthand experiences for learning mathematics in asimilar way. Math has many areas--patterns, measurement, geometry, statistics,probability, and more--and they're often unfamiliar, abstract, and confusing tostudents. We need to help children develop the ability and confidence to findtheir way around in each of these areas, see how they connect, and know what todo should they forget a fact or procedure. Here are five reasons manipulativematerials do just that:

  1. Manipulatives help make abstract ideas concrete. Apicture may be worth a thousand words, but while children learn to identifyanimals from picture books, they still probably don't have a sense about theanimals' sizes, skin textures, or sounds. Even videos fall short. There's nosubstitute for firsthand experience. Along the same lines, manipulatives givestudents ways to construct physical models of abstract mathematical ideas.

  2. Manipulatives lift math off textbook pages. While we wantstudents to become comfortable and proficient with the language ofmath--everything from the plus sign to the notations of algebra--words andsymbols only represent ideas. Ideas exist in children's minds, and manipulativeshelp them construct an understanding of ideas that they can then connect tomathematical vocabulary and symbols.

  3. Manipulatives build students' confidence by giving them a way to testand confirm their reasoning. One goal of the National Council for theTeachers of Mathematics Standards is to build students' confidence withmathematics. If students have physical evidence of how their thinking works,their understanding is more robust.

  4. Manipulatives are useful tools for solving problems. Insearching for solutions, architects construct models of buildings, engineersbuild prototypes of equipment, and doctors use computers to predict the impact ofmedical procedures. In the same way, manipulative materials serve as concretemodels for students to use to solve problems.

  5. Manipulatives make learning math interesting and enjoyable.Give students the choice of working on a page of problems or solving a problemwith colorful and interestingly shaped blocks, and there's no contest.Manipulatives intrigue and motivate while helping students learn.