Teaching

Studies Find That Use of Learning Toys Can Backfire

By Debra Viadero — April 24, 2007 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Learning toys have become big business in the United States. At home and in their classrooms, children use plastic letters to master the alphabet, interlocking blocks to learn arithmetic and the base-10 system, and pretend money to work out word problems.

A growing number of studies, though, suggest that such learning toys, or “manipulatives” in eduspeak, don’t guarantee learning success.

While many studies show that using concrete objects can boost children’s understanding of abstract concepts, others suggest they make no difference at all, and sometimes can even be counterproductive.

“Concreteness and abstractness are difficult and nuanced concepts,” said David H. Uttal, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill. “The critical question for researchers now is to find out how and when manipulatives should be used.”

Read an early article on manipulatives by David H. Uttal and Judy S. DeLoache posted by the Association for Psychological Science.

With Judy S. DeLoache, a psychologist from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and other researchers, Mr. Uttal has been conducting a series of experiments with preschoolers and elementary-age children to find out how educational toys affect their learning.

In one recent study, which has not yet been published, the researchers divided 35 5-year-olds into two groups, giving each a different set of toys to play with. One group played with plastic letters; the other—the control group—played with a variety of other toys, such as shapes or figures of familiar objects, like butterflies or triangles.

After 10 days, the researchers found that the children in the control group had actually learned more letters than the children using the alphabet shapes had.

Taking More Time

In a similar series of experiments at the elementary-school level, the researchers found that children taught to do two-digit subtraction by the traditional written method performed just as well as children who used a commercially available set of manipulatives made up of individual blocks that could be interlocked to form units of 10.

Later on, though, the children who used the toys had trouble transferring their knowledge to paper-and-pencil representations. Mr. Uttal and his colleagues also found that the hands-on lessons took three times as long as the traditional teaching methods did.

One problem is that children, and adults as well, sometimes fail to grasp the symbolic value of the objects they’re using, according to a panel of experts who presented research on the topic during a national meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development held in Boston last month.

Students might correctly perform the classroom procedure, connecting 10 blocks here, for instance, or taking away blocks from another pile, without thinking about what the objects are meant to represent. Younger children, in particular, also can get lost in play with the toys or become distracted by superficial features of the toys, such as realistic details or bright colors, that have nothing to do with the academic concept being taught.

Nicole M. McNeil, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, found, for example, that children made more errors—but different kinds of errors—when they used highly detailed, realistic-looking play money to solve word problems.

As part of that not-yet-published study, whose findings were also presented at the Boston meeting, 85 5th graders were divided into three groups and given 10 word problems involving money transactions. One group was allowed to use only paper and pencil. A second group used detailed, realistic play money, and the third group was given plain-looking black-and-white bills and coins.

Cuisenaire Rods

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Encyclopedia of American Education

While the students using the highly detailed concrete materials made the most errors overall, fewer of their mistakes involved conceptual misunderstandings. Instead, the students using the look-alike currency tended to stumble on simple arithmetic calculations.

Ms. McNeil’s take-away message: “There are both costs and benefits to using highly concrete manipulatives. Because the use of manipulatives is so widespread, it’s really important for teachers to stand back and think about what kinds of manipulatives to use.”

And at least one study suggests that some teachers may not be using the tools quite so reflectively.

Patricia S. Moyer-Packenham, a researcher from George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., interviewed and observed 10 middle-grades teachers using manipulatives to teach math.

In a paper published in 2001, she noted that many of the teachers saw the classroom toys as a “fun” reward for students, rather than as a way to enhance their learning.

Douglas H. Clements, a professor of learning and instruction at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, said, in some cases, teachers might also find that “virtual” manipulatives on a computer screen could be more effective than the real thing.

Computerized Geometry

With his colleague Julie Sarama, an associate professor of learning and instruction at the university, Mr. Clements has been testing a Logo computer program for teaching geometric concepts in middle school and comparing the results with those from other modes of instruction.

In the early 1990s, the researchers divided 223 middle school students into three groups—a textbook-only group, a group that used manipulatives in combination with paper and pencil, and a group that used the interactive software program—for a series of eight lessons.

What they found was that students using the software program and those given the hands-on objects both outscored the textbook group afterward on a test of geometric motion concepts—and at similarly high levels.

However, on a test given three weeks later, the computer-using group outperformed both of the other groups.

The researchers believe the software lessons may have been more effective in that case because they required students to be more explicit about their learning.

Instead of mindlessly rotating or taking apart a block, in other words, students had to type in commands to manipulate the shapes on their screens. What’s more, the commands required them to quantify directions by giving the precise degree of the angle or the length of side.

Focus on Meaning

Such findings, Mr. Clements said, suggest that teachers may have to expand their definition of manipulatives to include computer-based tools.

It’s not the “physicality” of the manipulatives that’s important, Mr. Clements and Ms. Sarama write in a conference paper synthesizing research on manipulatives, “it is their manipulability and their meaningfulness that make them educationally effective.”

“The main thing is to be very clear about the math that you’re trying to teach,” Mr. Clements added in an interview, “and to think about the kinds of mental actions you’re talking about and that you want students to do.”

Northwestern’s Mr. Uttal said his own findings with preschoolers also carry implications beyond the classroom, for manufacturers of educational toys and parents who buy them.

“Most of these toys don’t come with instructions for parents on the most effective ways to use them,” he said. “It would be very easy to fix that.”

Related Tags:

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Studies Find That Use of Learning Toys Can Backfire

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion 6 Small Instructional Changes Teachers Can Make for Big Results
Increasing "wait time," offering students more choice, and differentiating instruction in simple ways are a few manageable changes.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion Treat Students Like Kids, Not Criminals: Research Shows a Way to Keep Teens Out of Jail
Building a relationship of mutual respect between teachers and students can break the cycle.
Greg Walton, Jason Okonofua & Katie Remington Cunningham
3 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Teaching Download 5 Strategies for Teaching SEL to Teenagers (Downloadable)
This downloadable has strategies for creating social-emotional learning experiences that won't cause teenagers to roll their eyes.
1 min read
Conceptual image of a student moving into new surroundings.
Mary Haasdyk for Education Week
Teaching Opinion Students Are Finally Back Together. Here's How They Feel About It
While well aware of COVID-related change, students seem to be focused on such typical high school fare as grades and college-entrance exams.
8 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty