by Dr. Shirley Disseler
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard from teachers, ”Students just need to learn the math! They need to learn the procedures so they can ace the test”. . . well, I’d have a big pile of cash, that’s for sure!
I know that data is key in schools today, but we are not educating students to be test takers—we are educating them to use math in their daily lives and to know why it works the way it works. We want them to have good number sense, problem solving strategies, and mental math frameworks.
Using manipulatives is central to this process as students move through learning trajectories in math that include conceptual, representational, and abstract levels of understanding. If we try to skip the conceptual or representational learning and go straight to the more abstract level of procedures, we will create a gap in learning that will hurt the student later on.
Too many classrooms omit the concrete application that creates conceptual understanding. By sixth grade you can easily tell whether students have been exposed to manipulative processes or not. Students who have not used manipulatives in the learning process often have gaps in their ability to think through a problem logically or to show their work.
The LEGO brick allows for the concrete math to be discovered, which helps students understand the “why” behind the math. Posing questions in context while building models with the bricks encourages a sense of inquiry. Students ask questions about the math, discover invented strategies, and “play” with numbers. The LEGO bricks offer opportunities for students to build, draw, and write about possible solutions. This opens the door for discourse about math and number theory.
So when teachers ask me, “Is all this building with bricks really necessary?” my answer is always, “It is not only necessary, it is imperative if you are teaching for more than the test.”