Manipulatives Aren’t Just for Kindergarteners

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In our classroom we’ve been working through the math practice standards. We just finished number 5 today: Use appropriate tools strategically. Last year I researched the math practice standards, re-wrote them to be kid friendly, and turned them into learning targets.

I can use the right tool for math, and explain why I chose it. 

We talked about the kinds of tools that mathematicians use, and they came up with a healthy list. After that, I read the problem, made sure to show them where to find the manipulatives, and turned them loose to work. I thought this math practice standard would be a breeze!

Some of the tools I put out:

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In the past I’ve always offered the appropriate math tool for them, taught them how to use it and that was that.  This is the first time I’ve ever asked THEM to choose a math tool from a bunch of options.

I learned today that math tools are much more complex than I expected. The result of today’s lesson was a total surprise.  (I LOVE that even after 8 years of teaching I can still be surprised.)  Every student in the room was comfortable with using the manipulatives, but only about 5 out of 25 were using them effectively.  Rather than thinking about what tool might help them solve the problem, many of them chose tools based on their shapes.  For example, the problem was about cookies, so they picked the fake money manipulatives because they were round and they could trace “cookies” on their paper.  They were using a math tool (clearly not the right one), they could explain why they were using it, but their use of it was not exactly accurate for the problem type.

I took this moment to reflect and think about how I can incorporate math tool use more intentionally. I think that there are many tools appropriate for third grade. I used to think that math manipulatives were just for kindergartners or the early primary grades, but I have realized quickly today that their complexity is vast and allows for deep thinking.  I am excited for the challenge of exploring each tool’s unique properties!


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