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Why NOT to use Math Manipulatives

Are math manipulatives REALLY helping your child learn math? Read why I think they are not.

Math manipulatives are a BIG DEAL these days. Many math curriculums are built entirely around the idea that in order to learn mathematics best, a child must have within reach a set of objects specifically created for him to hold and handle in order to explore and understand mathematical relationships.

Well, I’m here to say I don’t think they’re really necessary. I don’t think that the amount of money that is charged for them is worth the value that they provide. I think most children can learn math just fine the old-fashioned way — by memorizing facts and procedures.

I do think manipulatives are fun; don’t get me wrong. It is fun to make a square of blocks that show a multiplication fact, or to put tangrams together like a puzzle, or to play with pie pieces that represent fractions.  I get that.  But I don’t think they really do the job they claim to do.

Are math manipulatives REALLY helping your child learn math? Read why I think they are not.

The idea behind math manipulatives is that your child will learn to understand the WHY behind mathematical concepts if he can SEE them happening in front of him. Why does 2 x 3 make 6? Because if I set up three rows of 2 cubes each, there are a total of 6 blocks.  How many 1/4’s are in ½? Just stack these pie pieces on top of one another and you can see!  How fun!  In one manufacturer’s own words, they “help make abstract ideas concrete” and they “make learning math interesting and enjoyable.”¹ This all sounds well and good.  But I don’t think it works that way.

First of all, in the early elementary years, the child is not capable of understanding abstract concepts, which is basically what math is made of.  The brain does not develop the ability to think in the abstract until about middle school age.  So in the younger years, trying to get the child to understand the WHY behind a mathematical concept is a futile task.  Manipulatives will not magically make that happen.

Secondly, while math may be more fun with manipulatives, hopefully our goal is mastery of traditional math.  Just because a child can move cubes around on the table to a prescribed formula does not mean he can do addition or subtraction when encountered on the printed page.

Case in point: EVERY time I tried to teach borrowing with manipulatives, the same thing happened.  First I would show the child stacks of “10” bars and “1” cubes, representing the minuend of the subtraction problem.  Then I would show how we would need to exchange a “10” bar for 10 cubes and combine them with the cubes already there — then we could do the subtraction.  And every time, they were able to show me the procedure with the bars and cubes, exactly as it should be done.  The next step, then, was to look at a subtraction problem on paper and use a pencil to complete the problem. But for some reason, the only way they could complete the problem on paper was by memorizing the procedure of crossing out the number in the tens column, writing one less, and adding 10 to the one’s column.  They did not understand WHY they were doing it, just that the only way to get the correct answer was to do it that way.  They could not translate what they saw with the bars and cubes to what they needed to do with with the written numbers.  If manipulatives were truly making a difference and giving them that “aha moment,” wouldn’t they remember the meaning behind what they’d done? Wouldn’t they be able to reproduce it for themselves on paper, explaining it as they went? I think they were just too young to make that kind of relationship happen in their brains.

A better use of the child’s time than working with manipulatives ad infinitum would be to memorize addition and multiplication facts, measurements, etc.  During the elementary years, this is what the brain is best suited to do.  As the child masters those, then processes such as borrowing and long division can also be memorized — even without understanding what they mean abstractly.  Frankly, it’s often easier to memorize a procedure when you are NOT trying to understand the why.

And after those facts/procedures are memorized, an amazing thing happens.  After the child has become so comfortable with all the facts and the procedures that he could do them in his sleep, then, when his brain is ready, that is when the understanding begins to kick in. “Oh, THIS is why we do it that way! I get that now!”

(This is actually the basis of the classical model of teaching. The first stage of classical education is called the grammar stage, where children learn lots of facts about just about everything – it is not until the dialectic stage, in the middle school years, that the child begins using those facts to understand the world around them. I think this model is particularly applicable to the study of mathematics.)

Another claim of manipulative users is that manipulatives “build student confidence.”¹ I think a child will gain more confidence in math from doing the work of memorizing, rather than messing about with manipulatives. It is not until those building blocks are cemented in the brain that higher learning can take place. Math builds on itself.  You must know your addition facts to learn mulitplication; you must know your multiplication facts to learn division. To neglect the fact-building in favor of using manipulatives is to sow the seeds for LACK of confidence and LACK of understanding, in my humble opinion.

And who says memorizing can’t be fun?  At that age, kids LOVE to memorize things, and sing jingles, and time themselves.  A lack of manipulatives need not equate to boring and dry math instruction.

Of course there is room for some use of visual aids – but it is not necessary to spend a fortune on manipulatives. Dried beans can be used for counters. Glue the beans on a popsicle stick to make a bar of 10. Graph paper cut into squares can be used to illustrate all sorts of relationships.  But don’t expect the child to understand the concepts or be able to explain them.  That will come later on, when his brain is able to put two and two together and come up with with a sentence.

Yes, math can be a difficult subject for many kids.  But I do not believe manipulatives are the answer to that.  Let’s get back to the basics and stop expecting the unrealistic and unnecessary.

Do you agree or disagree? I don’t mind opposing views, as long as they are expressed politely. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments, or come to my Facebook page and let me know what you think!

¹http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/more-homework-help/math-manipulatives

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About the author

Ann Karako

Ann has been homeschooling for 18+ years and has graduated four children (one more to go). She believes that EVERY mom can CONFIDENTLY, COMPETENTLY -- and even CONTENTEDLY -- provide the COMPLETE high school education that her teen needs. Ann's website, AnnieandEverything.com, offers information, resources, and virtual hugs to help homeschool moms do just that. Ann has written Cure the Fear of Homeschooling High School: A Step-by-Step Manual for Research & Planning, and she founded the popular FB group called It's Not that Hard to Homeschool High School. She and her family, including two dogs and three cats, live in rural Missouri.

15 Comments

  • I don’t think that manipulatives should replace memorization, but used to supplement it. And real world examples to me are better than special toys or tools. Also, isn’t the goal of common core curriculum for the kids to understand the WHY behind math even in early elementary school? If so, that is interesting that they are expecting developmentally inappropriate achievement.

    • Hi Sara! Yes, I agree with you that manipulatives can, when used properly, supplement memorization — but unfortunately that is often not how they are used. And even then, I’m not sure that they really do help the child understand the WHY. I love your idea of using real world examples, though! As far as the common core requirements, I’m not convinced they are what is most beneficial to students. That is one of the reasons we homeschool. 🙂 Great comment!! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  • We have never been big into using manipulatives. I used beans some for counting, grouping and adding and subtracting. And, we used fraction circles and a clock for telling time. Those are it. My kids are in 4th and 2nd grade and I never bought the big manipulative kits. I thought I was alone 🙂

  • I am visiting from The Hip Homeschool Hop. I must admit that I have never purchased math manipulatives myself and have never bought into the idea that they were a necessity. From time to time if I have had a child that has struggled with a problem we have used coins or beans for counters but that is the extent of it for us.

    • Thanks for coming by, Stephanie! I’m so glad you agree with me; I was a little hesitant to write this post, because it’s tough to go against the crowd. It’s so nice to know I have friends, lol. 🙂

  • Interesting. I just found this because I am now homeschooling my children. I DID buy some manipulatives and my thoughts were “Wow. I really wish these would have been around when I was a kid.”

    I struggled with math when I was younger. I have an above average IQ and did well in other subjects. I read several grade levels ahead throughout grade school. I excelled in life sciences and got abstract concepts such as atoms and matter, yet math was my weak subject.

    I am not sure that they are necessary, either. People have been learning equations well before a plastic base ten set was ever around. However, I find them to be a great way to keep my kids interested while we repeat, together, facts to learn. If they simple add some counters to each other and then hastily write down an answer, it certainly only teaches them to do addition in that manner. However, if we work together all the while repeating “5 plus 4 equals 9”, they are practicing memorizing the equations.

    I know the basics of Classical education. I am not sure I agree with it. In fact, I have never met a child over the age of 4 who isn’t able to grasp some abstract concepts. We hear this “fact” stated repeatedly, and perhaps it is true. However, without scientific studies in front of me, I am hesitant to believe it due to my own anecdotal experiences.

    • Two other things I thought of-

      (I know, just let it go, right?? 🙂 ) I think the reason manipulatives fail so miserably in public schools is because there is too few teachers to students. When students are left unattended to “explore math”, they play with them and are not focused on the repetition needed to really ingrain those concepts.

      Secondly, on the abstract ideas concept, I find that my Sunday school classes are sometimes better at understanding the trinity ( a very abstract idea) than my adult class is!

      Anyway, there’s a different perspective for you. Have a good evening.

      • Yes, I heartily agree that students will not use manipulatives effectively if not guided to do so. I maintain that even at home, using manipulatives encourages too much reliance on them to explain/explore abstract concepts, and then there is not enough emphasis on memorization of math facts needed to move forward successfully and understand those concepts when it is more natural to do so. Just my two cents! 🙂

    • I think that’s a very reasonable way to use manipulatives — to practice memorization facts. I think not knowing math facts will make math much harder for kids than it needs to be, so you’re preaching to the choir when you talk about that, lol. But can younger kids learn the abstract concepts that manipulatives are usually used to teach? I personally don’t think so. I agree with you that they can understand “some,” but I don’t think manipulatives are going to help them understand better or more. It’s definitely a soapbox of mine, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. 🙂

  • While memorization is an important part of being a good problem-solver, there is a reason why teachers have, over the past few decades, come to rely on using manipulatives to connect the abstract, memorized procedures to the concrete.

    It’s because people forget. All. The. Time.

    In fact, it is a widely recognized problem: we go through years of mandatory math education and still tons of perfectly intelligent adults say that they’re “bad at math.” As a country, we’ve pondered over why we are so behind in math education compared to other countries, and have learned from them that a memorization-only curriculum doesn’t work.

    As a former high school teacher, I can attest to that. Simple procedures are gone by the time kids are in 9th grade. Extremely motivated kids struggle because every procedure they thought they had memorized was no longer remembered the way they were taught. They had nothing concrete to tie these procedures to, so they couldn’t even tell that they’d forgotten.

    Some of the problems you describe with using manipulatives can result from a child’s incomplete understanding of how procedures tie to concepts. That’s a natural part of learning mathematics, and it is up to the teacher to help them make these connections over time. I wouldn’t give up on using manipulatives altogether.

  • You say that, “in the early elementary years, the child is not capable of understanding abstract concepts, which is basically what math is made of. The brain does not develop the ability to think in the abstract until about middle school age. So in the younger years, trying to get the child to understand the WHY behind a mathematical concept is a futile task.” This is EXACTLY the reason we use manipulatives–to make the abstract more concrete. For example, to make it possible to see that the abstract concept of regrouping, or borrowing as you call it, is not a magical process but is simply the regrouping of the same number in different ways. So that 152 can be made with 1 hundred, 5 tens, or 2 ones, but it can also be made with 152 ones, or 15 tens and 2 ones. As a veteran elementary teacher, I can tell you that many children are absolutely able to understand this, and manipulatives are a great tool to push their conceptual understanding and number sense.

    • I think manipulatives can be helpful but shouldn’t be relied upon. I think sometimes they make it harder for the child to understand. Many children ARE able to understand concrete representations of some concepts — but many find them distracting or confusing. Especially when the concepts get more complex and more (you guessed it) abstract.

  • Hi! I’m wondering if you could share the educational research that supports your ideas about children not being able to think abstractly or make abstract connections in math until middle school age, as well as any research supporting the memorization of math facts (versus the learning of math facts).
    Thanks!

    • I am basing my opinion about these things on Piaget’s theory of the four stages of cognitive development, which is explained here: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325030.php. This is well-known among educators, and while it is only a theory, my own experience as a math teacher has seemed to justify it to a certain extent. I’ve known kids who were amazing at arithmetic (general math) try to move to Algebra and be absolutely flummoxed. I believe their brains just weren’t ready to process the abstract concepts that Algebra introduces. After a year or two they were much more able to comprehend the coursework. As far as research supporting the memorization of math facts vs. just learning the facts, I haven’t tried to find any. I’m not attempting to write a scholarly work here, just present my opinion based on my own education and experience. Most of the time you can find research to back up whatever position you want. I just know that most kids who don’t know their math facts well struggle more both with computation and with comprehension than kids who do. In my opinion, memorization helps their brain set the facts aside to be recalled when needed, so that it can focus on learning the more challenging concepts that come after. I write more about this here: https://www.annieandeverything.com/hate-math-multiplication-facts/. Thanks for the question.

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