Walk into any kindergarten class and you are sure to find some familiar objects scattered around the room. You might see building blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, and many other manipulatives that have made their way into early childhood education curriculums across the globe. However, as you travel through the upper grades, the use of manipulatives starts fading in exchange for formal learning. By taking a detailed look at the affordances and unique characteristics that traditional manipulatives offer, we begin to uncover limitations that may account for the potential drop off in upper grade classrooms, when knowledge become more dynamic. By understanding and identifying these limitations, researchers have been able to introduce some advantages that computation and digitally enhanced communication could offer this media environment. Digital manipulatives, as they are called, contain embed computational and communication hardware inside physical objects. (Resnick, Martin, Berg, Borovy, Colella, Kramer, Silverman, 1998 ) This collaboration serves to decrease the limitations that traditional manipulatives have, while increasing the control and applicable usage of static objects, such as manipulatives, in an educational environment.
Timeline of Manipulatives
Manipulatives have a long history, spanning back over a century. Listed bellow are two notable advocates for manipulatives throughout history.
In 1837, Friedrich Froebel created the first kindergarten. Founded on the belief that early childhood education should be based on natural play, he developed “Froebel’s Gifts” to encourage the development of construction and symbolism. Providing children with a collection of extremely simple abstract playthings, encouraged them to combine objects to construct more complex forms (Wilson, 238).
Maria Montessori later expanded on Froebel’s ideas, by stating that the goal of education is “to find activities that are so intrinsically meaningful that we want to throw ourselves into them” (Montessori, 1967). Dr. Montessori believed that deep concentration was essential for developing a learners knowledge. This deep concentration comes about through children working with their hands. As a result, Montessori incorporated a new generation of manipulative materials that put children in control of the learning process. (Lillard, 2008)
Although both individuals above shared a belief in the importance of physical interaction with concrete objects in the construction of meaning, Froebel and Montessori had two separate perspectives on their uses. Froebel was concerned mainly with enabling children to create complex structures, through the use of manipulatives. An example of this type of manipulative are building blocks. Montessori however, was more interested in creating representations of abstract concepts. This type of abstract representation could be found in Cuisenaire Rods and their relation to numeric proportions. (Zuckerman et al, 2005)
Traditional Manipulatives: Attributes and Affordances
Age Appropriate: According to Piaget, formalized early childhood education may starts near the end of the Spacial Motor Stage of development, and the beginning of the Preoperational Period. While children are perfecting their motor skills in the Preoperational Stage, they begin experimenting with symbolic play rather then simple motor play (van Geert, 2000). This belief falls directly in line with those of Froebel and Montissori.
Teaching abstract concepts: Manipulatives allow for the adoption of symbolic representation to help bridge the gap between abstract concepts and the “real world”. Through this method of symbolic representation, teachers use manipulatives to teach subjects such as mathematics, enabling learners to interact and explore problems. (Moyer, 2001)
Learning through play: The act of constructing knowledge through “play”, affords a method of exploration and problem solving which lowers the emotional stakes of failing. The ability to create a safe environment for exploration and actively testing out hypothesis enables learning through trial and error (Jenkins, 23).
Muti-Sensory Output: Unlike many instructional media environments, manipulatives apply kinesthetic and visual learning principles, both of which support Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence (Gardner, 1989). Learners are able to physically manipulate objects in the “real world”, and can also identify objects through varying physical attributes such as size, color and shape.
Natural Physical Interaction: Since manipulatives are physical objects, then affordances could be added to their design to help guide proper use without the need for in-depth training or bulky manuals. Blocks could be stacked, knobs could be turned, and buttons could be pushed, with a relatively low learning curve.(Norman, 2002)
Promotes Collaboration: Physical objects in the “real world” are not limited to single user interfaces such as a book, or in most cases, a computer screen. The interaction with physical objects within a social environment, such as a classroom, affords collaboration and social construction through interaction. This allows for meanings to be negotiated through the collection of multiple perspectives (Smith, 2005 )
Distributive Cognition: There are examples where manipulatives are used to redirect some of the cognitive processes. (Martina, 2005) This could be seen with many of Montessori’s manipulative materials, such as the Base 10 Blocks and Cuisenaire Rods.
Limitations and Controversy of Traditional Manipulatives
No medium is free of controversy. Manipulatives, like any other instructional alternative, are not perfect. However, understanding a medium’s limitations can assist in identifying or disregarding proposed instructional solutions (Collins, 2000). In researching opposing perspectives, we can identify possible adjustments to the medium that address valid arguments though innovation. Bellow are several concerns regarding traditional manipulatives.
Dual Representations: Dual representation may lead children to focus on the manipulatives as objects themselves instead of on the instruction at hand. For this reason, Uttal suggests careful consideration when using manipulatives to be certain that they facilitate a child’s perception of the relation between the object and the instructional objectives.(Uttal et al., 1997)
Needs Supervision: Manipulatives in and of themselves do not solve problems, nor do they serve as a substitute for instruction. Learning through the use of manipulatives must always involve mastering their symbolic relations, most of which children may fail to see the obvious. For this reason teachers or facilitators need to make sure that the connections between the manipulatives and other symbols or concepts are explicitly pointed out. (Uttal et al., 1997)
You can’t save your session: Once learners are done interacting with manipulatives, there is no easy method of saving their session. In order for a child that is stacking blocks to continue where he left off the following day, they must either carefully move the blocks to a corner or leave the blocks where they are and hope that no one disturbs them.
Difficult to properly assess: Assessment of a learners’ real-time interaction, unless it is video recorded, is difficult to achieve and archive. For example, in Montessori schools, teachers are responsible for assessing each student through critical observation (Lillard, 2008). With the understanding that these teachers are assessing more then one child at any given moment, it is quite probable that they may miss milestones that some of their students may achieve during play.
Feedback is limited by nature: Traditional manipulatives offer a limited amount of immediate feedback. For example, trying to push a cube into a hole shaped like a star immediately suggests to the user to try another hole. However, since manipulatives are inanimate physical objects in the “real world”, their feedback is somewhat confined by the laws of physics, such as gravity, friction, collision, etc.
The Birth of Digital Manipulatives
If we step back and follow the timeline of educational media, we can identify several instances in which separate individual media converge, creating a new or enhanced type of medium. In the early 1900′s audio recordings made their way into education, and where later combined with video. This resulted in the Audio/Video movement (Reiser, 2007). Computers have since made their way into classrooms, and text based screen gave way to other types of media, such as images, video and audio. Most recently, the introduction of the internet has allowed us to communicate and share all of these media with the world.
Computers have an enormous number of Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) that provide an infinite amount of functionality, both online and offline. The consequence is that most of our interaction with a computer, specifically monitors, keyboards and mice, flattens our three-dimensional representations of the physical world into a small two dimensional computer screen. This takes takes away from our primal instinct of learning. David Liddle, Stanford professor, was quoted in a 1993 Wired Magazine article stating, “We need to learn how to use some of the natural computation in our body and stimulate it artificially with a digital engine,”(Bestor , 1993)
Keeping with the idea of natural progression and convergence of media, the merging of traditional manipulatives and computational devices, such as a desktop computer, offers the opportunity for both physical and computational means to work synergistically to create a “new” type of system, namely “digital manipulatives”, also known as Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) (Resnick et al., 1998).
Digitally Enhancing the Attributes and Affordances of Traditional Manipulatives
Since the affordances attributed to traditional manipulatives are primarily due to the objects’ physical form and the laws of physics, these pre-existing affordances continue to be maintained when circuitry is introduced “inside” the object. There is however, an opportunity to introduce new affordances to tangible objects based on numerous input sensors such as: pressure , proximity, solar, flex, etc.(Saffer, 2009) Each of these sensors has the ability to add to multiple levels of input, which can then be processed and redirected to the user as various forms of output feedback such: haptic (vibration, pulse), audio (beep, voice), visual (LED, screen), etc. Describing the benefits of each of these sensors is above the scope of this paper, so I will instead focus on some high level benefits that have been incorporated into some existing “digital manipulatives”.
Controlled Feedback: Since traditional manipulative are a collection of static objects, their feedback is limited to the laws of physics. The introduction of output circuitry, such as a motors, and LEDs, allows the manipulative to provide a much larger variety of feedback such as blinking buttons, or haptic feedback. This computationally dispatched form of feedback also increases the amount of control in order to offer more effective “just in time” information to the learner.
Increased Muti-Sensory Output: By emitting controlled light patterns of various color and speeds, enhancing the tactile experience through haptic feedback, and introducing auditory commands or responses, a manipulative release independent forms of information processing (Gardner, 1989) and have greater control in leveraging multiple aspects of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Assist Representation and Interaction: As a result of this output, the manipulative could also help guide a user’s mental representation and interaction through the use of audio or visual cues. By creating a positive clear interaction experience, the learner increases their ability to create a clearer mental model. (Schnotz , 2003)
Allows for custom interaction: The use of a micro-controllers in digital manipulative, such as a PIC or Arduino, allows a learner to not only construct meaning through interaction, but to construct the tool in which the interaction happens. MIT Labs has introduced several digital manipulatives that have incorporate LOGO programming to allow learners to take control and construct their own problems and scenarios for the manipulative to solve (Zuckerman et al, 2005). A popular example of this would be Samuel Papert’s work with LEGO MindStorm. (Papert, 1991)
Save and Assess: Information gained from each session could be stored for later use by the learner. It can also be uploaded to a computer so that the user’s interaction with the object could be properly assessed by a facilitator. Recently Leapfrog® has introduces a variety of toys that fall under their Leapfrog® Learning Path family of products. Learning Path is essentially a Learning Management System, similar to what corporations may use for their employees to track their progress. According to Leapfrog® FAQs:
The LeapFrog Learning Path is a free online tool at leapfrog.com that lets you, the parent, see your child’s learning progress with LeapFrog products. For the first time ever, you can get regular insights into the skills and activities your child is engaging with during play, share in your child’s successes and map out what’s coming next. (LeapFrog)
Although not marketed as an assessment tool, Leapfrog® Leap Path does show a glimmer of what could be coming in the future for assessing learner and object interaction. By combining a GUI interface for facilitator to modify, and customize the learner interactions, there may be a way to increase emotion and discourse between the object (toy/manipulative) and the learner. This emotional connection may enhance engagement.
Another topic for further research is the use of assessments in digital objects (toy/manipulatives). Being able to track a learner’s progress through the use of analytical graphs, there may be a way of analyzing both the user’s interaction and also developing a form of formative analysis of the learning tool itself. This could further benefit the design and innovation of future products.
Through the use of digital manipulative, we are able to actively engage users in solving meaningful and complex problems that are either too difficult or impossible to do by traditional non-digital means. Through the use of these types of physical learning interactions, learners can delve into topics such as dynamic systems, earlier in their educational career. (Zuckerman et al, 2005)
As with all instructional systems, successful use of the media is dependant on the design and implementation. However, increasing the amount of affordance that an individual medium offers is greatly beneficial to the instructional designer. It is also very important to document any limitations and controversy regarding a particular medium to help identify potential improvements. This type of investigation increases the likelihood of creating innovative solutions, and taking different perspectives in the development and implementation of new media.
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