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How Affective are Manipulatives in the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics in the Primary School?

The use of manipulatives in the teaching and learning of Mathematics has been supported by researchers going back as far as Piaget (1941), and after by Montessori (1964) and Brunner (1966) as cited in McNeil & Jarvin (2007). The use of manipulatives in the teaching and learning of Mathematics is a strategy employed by the Constructivist movement which believes that children construct their own knowledge through their interaction with their environment and each other. Part of a childs learning environment in the classroom includes the concrete objects that can be touched and manipulated to aid understanding of often abstract Mathematical concepts. Manipulatives offer students the opportunity to explore concepts both visually and tactilely, often through hands on experience. (McNeil & Jarvin 2007). Although there is ample literature supporting the use and reporting positive results of using manipulatives in the teaching and learning Mathematics in the classroom, (Cain-Caston 1996, Moyer 2001, Raphael & Walstrom 1989, Sowell 1989, Witzel et al 2003), cited in Freer Weiss (2006) there is also literature that questions the validity of using manipulatives in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in the classroom as well as highlighting the reasons for the failure of manipulatives to make a difference in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in the classroom.

If we revisit Piagets Cognitive Constructivist Theory which states that children construct knowledge through concrete experiences in their world, it follows that manipulatives would have a positive effect in childrens learning of Mathematics, in particular the abstract concepts. Piaget also believed that because of young childs mental immaturity, the use of concrete materials in learning would supplement the words and symbols they are yet to develop. (Freer Weiss 2006). Moyer (2001) and Kennedy (1986) cited in Freer Weiss (2006) concurred, the use of manipulatives to represent abstract concepts in Mathematics can help children understand Mathematical ideas and their applications to their lives. A study by Crystal (2007) revealed that children, who used a manipulative as a cognitive tool improved their level of achievement, increased their understanding and had a positive attitude toward the Mathematical concept that they had previously struggled with. Manipulatives also provide children with another resource to use in learning Mathematics. Children who are provided with a range of resources are more likely to perform at their optimal level. (Sternberg & Grigorenko 2004) cited in (McNeil & Jarvin 2007). Manipulatives also help children to draw on their own real world knowledge, culture and ethnicity which can make the concepts easier to understand. (McNeil & Jarvin 2007). This is supported by research by Baranes,et al (1989), Kotovsky et al (1985) and Rittle- Hohnson & Koedinger (2005) as cited in McNeil & Jarvin (2007). Another positive aspect of using manipulatives in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in the classroom is the physical action they employ, which has been shown to enhance memory and understanding. (Glenberg et al 2004 and Martin & Shwartz 2005)cited in McNeil & Jarvin (2007). Suydam & Higgins (1977) cited in Hatshorn & Boren (1990) concluded in their research that Mathematic achievement was enhanced with the use of manipulatives.

McCoy (1992), cited in Freer Weiss (2006), found that the use of manipulatives can assist in easing learner anxiety in Mathematics which can affect achievement and a learners attitude towards Mathematics. Manipulatives particularly appeal to those learners who have a preference for kinaesthetic or tactile learning. Sowell (1989), cited in Clements& McMillen (1996), also found that learners attitudes towards Mathematics improved with the use of manipulatives and their use also increased learners retention and ability to solve problems. Manipulatives have also shown to be an effective tool for testing ideas that are developing in the learner when engaged in problem solving. (Puchner et al 2008). The use of manipulatives has been associated with a more comprehensive teaching of a topic as those teachers who use manipulatives to teach a topic teach more thoroughly than those teachers who do not use manipulatives. However, those teachers who used manipulatives as well as in depth coverage of the topic had the highest student achievement. Therefore it is concluded that the use of manipulatives alone does not affect achievement but is one component of effective teaching. (Raphael & Walstrom 1989) cited in Freer Weiss (2006).

Among research that questions the use of manipulatives as an effective tool for the teaching and learning of Mathematics is that of Baroody (1989) cited in Clements (1999) who concluded that the use of manipulatives does not guarantee success. Fennema (1972) cited in Clements & McMillen (1996) found that classes not using manipulatives outperformed those who used manipulatives on a transfer test. Also cited in Clements & McMillan (1996) were the findings of Wiebert & Wearne (1992) that students sometimes learn to use manipulatives in a rote manner, they can perform the correct steps but have not understood the concept behind it. Similarly, Thompson & Thompson (1990) cited in Clements & McMillen (1996) found that students often fail to link their actions with base 10 blocks with the notation system used to describe the actions. Howden (1986) cited in Hartshorn & Boren (1990) found that even if children can solve a problem using concrete manipulatives, they may not be able to solve it at an abstract level. Therefore, Howden suggest a careful choice of manipulatives to avoid such a problem. The greatest constraint on the effectiveness of manipulatives in teaching and learning Mathematics is their availability. (Hartshorn & Boren 1990).

Clements (1999), found problems with using manipulatives in relation to their physical nature. Firstly, physical objects can be meaningfully manipulated without the concepts being obvious to the learner. Secondly, the physical actions performed by children may be different than those intended by the teacher and different from what the teacher wanted the children to learn. He concludes that although manipulatives have a place as a learning tool, they do not carry the meaning of the mathematical idea and agree with Wiebert & Wearne (1992) cited in Clements & McMillen (1996) that they can even be used in a rote manner. Students may need concrete manipulatives initially to build meaning but they need to think about their actions with manipulatives to continue. Therefore concrete manipulatives are not sufficient to guarantee meaningful learning. As Ball (1992, p.47) cited in Clements (1999) said Although kinaesthetic experience can enhance perception and thinking, understanding does not travel through the fingertips and up the arm. Moyer (2001), cited in Freer Weiss (2006), concurs, manipulatives do not lead to abstract understanding, learners need to be engaged in the process of learning for them to be effective. Learners should be guided to discover

the relationship between the concept being taught and the manipulative so as to construct knowledge and hence learn. (Ives & Hoy 2003, Raphael & Wahlstrom 1989, Sowell 1989) in Freer Weiss (2006).

It appears from examination of literature that there are several reasons why manipulatives do not help or may even hinder students learning and performance. In McNeil & Jarvin (2007)it is firstly suggest that it is the teacher who fails to use manipulatives effectively. They may use them to engage students, for fun or motivation rather than a concrete representation of a concept. (Moyer (2001) in Freer Weisss (2006). Secondly, the manipulative is required to have dual representation. That is as an object but also as a symbol of a Mathematical concept, thus children do not necessarily see the concept just because they have interacted with manipulatives. Boulton & Lewis (1998)cited in McNeil & Jarvin (2007) go on to say that a childs cognitive processes are caught up in representing and manipulating the concrete object leaving no cognition available for processing concepts. To effectively use manipulatives in the classroom, students must be familiar enough with them so that the use of them does not distract them from the learning process. (Freer Weiss 2006).

In conclusion of how to use manipulatives effectively in the teaching and learning of Mathematics, teachers need to be careful in choosing manipulatives that students do not already have a representation of, for example toys. Manipulatives like these may lead students to focus on having fun rather than focussing on the concept. Manipulatives should not be highly concrete or rich in perceptual detail (McNeil & Jarvin 2007). McNeil & Jarvin (2007) also recommend explicit connections are made between the informal understandings children make through the use of manipulatives and the formal symbolic representations of a concept as there is no evidence that manipulatives help students to make these connections. Teacher training has also been seen to affect the use of manipulatives as more recently trained teachers use manipulatives more readily than teachers with more experience. Stewart (2003) cited in Freer Weiss (2006) discovered a trend in the gradual elimination of manipulatives in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in the classroom as children got older and that this was because teachers deemed manipulatives to be toys and older children should not be using them. (Tooke et al 1992) in Freer Weiss (2006).

Manipulatives may not help all students, but with correct use they can be an effective cognitive tool for those students who have difficulty constructing knowledge without visual or tactile tools. Using manipulatives encourages the use of multiple senses. (Freer Weiss 2006). Clements (1999) concludes that manipulatives can play a role in constructing knowledge but they should be used before formal symbolic instruction. He also reiterates that manipulatives do not hold a mathematical idea and that using them alone is not satisfactory, that they be used in the context of the mathematical task while engaging childrens thinking with teacher guidance.

Clements, D. H. (1999). Concrete Manipulatives, Concrete Ideas. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood,Vol.1(1).45-60.Retrieved from ts. Clements, D.H. & McMillan, S. (1996). Rethinking Concrete Manipulatives. Teaching Children Mathematics, Vol.2 (5). 270-279. Retrieved from Crystal, A. (2007). An Action Based Research Study on How Using Manipulatives will Increase Students Achievement in Mathematics. Online submission. Retrieved from Freer Weiss, D. (2006). Keeping It Real: The Rationale for Using Manuipulatives in the Middle Grades. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, Vol.11 (5). 238-242. Retrieved from Hartshorn,R. & Boren,S. (1990). Experiential Learning of Mathematics: Using Manipulatives. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from McNeil,N. & Jarvin,L. (2007). When Theories Dont Add Up: Disentangling the Manipulatives Debate. Theory into Practice, Vol.46 (4). 309-316. DOI: 10.1080/00405840701593899. Puchner,L., Taylor,A., ODonnell,B., Fick,K. (2008). Teacher Learning and Mathematics Manipulatives: A Collect Case Study about Teacher Use of Manipulatives in Elementary and Middle School Mathematics Lessons. School Science and Mathematics, Vol 108 (7). 313-325. Retrieved from currentPosition=1&userGroupName=acuni&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&sort=DateDescend&docId= A189159359&noOfPages=13.