“He is just not using the manipulatives!”
This comment is something I have both said and heard from my colleagues about our students. It is something that has me wondering about our mathematics instruction. I have learned through my journey in mathematics education that we need to intentionally select and/or offer manipulatives and models that can help support students in completing rich math tasks. I also have learned that we need to explicitly teach and offer a shared experience of using manipulatives rather than presume that students know how to use them and that they will. However, I am still puzzling over the fact that there are teachers out there doing these things and students are still hesitating or outright refusing to use math manipulatives. It has me wondering: Is there a math manipulatives stigma?
That’s when I started to reflect back on my own experiences learning math. I never used manipulatives. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I used manipulatives when it was socially acceptable to do so, when we were using graphing calculators or when we were all using protractors, you know as an entire class…but definitely not as a free-thinking student. You never caught me dead busting out the counters or tangrams. In fact, I didn’t even know what tangrams were until I got into the education field and a rekenrek? You got to be kidding me! When I think of my education in elementary school, I only ever remember kids being encouraged or offered manipulatives when they struggled. I actually remember being discouraged from using counters if I already had rote counting down.
Jo Boaler’s current research supports students using their fingers to count. This is fantastic and I hope it will help make a lasting shift in mathematics pedagogy. But is it enough to break what I am proposing as a real problem in our mathematics classrooms today: Math manipulative stigma? That I am not so sure. I know I had a genuine fear that my peers would identify me as “dumb” at math if they caught me using them. I felt that if I touched manipulatives I was “giving up”. I wonder if this belief is still widely held? I wonder if we educators have had enough conversations about this? And what about the parent community? What messages are we putting out to them as our partners in education? Have we offered enough experiences using manipulatives beyond the primary grades to our students in order to interrupt this kind of thinking?
With technology these days and web-based tools like “mathies”, manipulatives are becoming more and more accessible and in theory, also easier to disguise. Are students disguising their use of manipulatives? Are they hiding the fact that they are using their fingers?
So I pose this as my final question in what seems like a blog post full of them...
What can we do to help encourage and honour the use of manipulatives in our mathematics classrooms?