Research School Network: Manipulatives in maths putting evidence into practice

Manipulatives in maths

putting evidence into practice

by Research Schools Network
on the

Simon Cox, EEF Content Specialist for Mathematics & Director of Blackpool Research School

The EEF’s guidance report, Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3, featuring eight evidence-based recommendations to improve outcomes in maths for 714 year-olds, was published just over two years ago. 

As schools have now had time to reflect upon their existing practice, act upon the guidance and begin to implement longer-term changes, it seems like a good time to ask: How are schools putting the evidence into practice?

Research School experience of working with schools to implement the report’s recommendations points towards one particular recommendation as attracting the most attention: Recommendation 2 – Use manipulatives and representations. There is very good reason for this: there is a significant and strong evidence base that supports the use of concrete manipulatives in the teaching of mathematics and historically they are under-used, particularly (but not exclusively) at secondary level.

Our Lady and St Patrick’s is a Primary school in Maryport, situated on the windswept West coast of Cumbria. Together with their partner school, St Gregory’s in Workington, they took part in Blackpool Research School’s mathematics training programme in 2018 – 19 and decided, through careful use of the EEF audit tool and discussions with school leaders, to focus on the development of the use of manipulatives in mathematics lessons.

The two schools identified that, despite having many manipulatives on offer in classrooms, their usage was sporadic; dependent upon staff confidence, experience and age group taught. There was no clear rationale for their use or consistent training for teachers. The lack of consistent approaches made it especially difficult for new staff and meant that transition through the year groups could leave children confused and struggling.

During the training programme, leaders drew up implementation plans, using the EEF’s Putting evidence to work: A School’s Guide to Implementation guidance report as a starting point. The planning process continued when they returned to their schools and they were able to implement their new, carefully considered plans. New manipulatives were purchased for Key Stage 2 classrooms (in particular numicon, place value counters and cuisenaire rods), staff training was planned and current practice was audited. Teachers were a key part of this process, and they collaboratively planned a document detailing examples of the use of manipulatives in supporting the teaching of key topics across all year groups – from Early Years to Year 6. Despite some concerns (‘Will children not just play with them instead of using them in a meaningful way?’), teachers trialled the resources during the summer term, with time built into meetings for feedback and reflection.

Teachers and leaders at both schools now talk excitedly about manipulative use and are keen to show visitors the resources in action. Working walls are used to illustrate the topics currently being studied using manipulatives and representations, children are growing in confidence in their understanding of mathematics and conversations in meetings and INSET sessions are focused and meaningful. The implementation has been deliberately slow and the process is by no means complete’, with teaching also slowing down, as more time is taken to model, demonstrate and work in groups, then pairs, then individually. But leaders are focused and determined, and progress scores in mathematics are already showing significant improvement as a result.

So, the top five tips from the schools’ experiences?

  1. Hold your nerve – this might not be a quick win’ – and will require investment in time and resources. But it will be worth it!
  2. Audit practice together and share the evidence – complete the EEF audit tool as a team and use key research papers as part of staff meetings to ensure everyone understands why this is an area of focus.
  3. Consider: What’s your rationale? Why have you chosen to use a particular manipulative for a particular topic? Is it supporting an identified area of need for your children and school?
  4. Provide time – time will be needed for initial planning and discussions, but should also be factored in moving forward for follow-up meetings and sharing of experiences
  5. Have an exit strategy – consider at the start how you are going to move children away from using a manipulative, perhaps towards using a representation. Remember – this doesn’t have to be done quickly!

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