It’s not part of the syllabus

I found myself having a barely restrained argument earlier in the year. A retired school teacher was standing in my kitchen, and we had just gotten onto the subject of cuisinaire rods.

I had just been showing off the new set we had opened and were playing with. She was absolutely adamant that they were a teaching tool from the eighties, education had moved on, and if I insisted on using them to teach maths, my boys would ‘fall behind.’ This last phrase, I have noticed, is a fairly common threat from people who don’t like homeschooling, but cannot quite articulate why not.

The point she kept coming back to was that ‘It’s not part of the syllabus!’ Technically she was right with this last point. I have read the state syllabus in excruciating detail, and there is no mention of cuisenaire rods anywhere. Actually, there is very little on methodology at all. It is really just a list of content and aims. How any teacher goes about achieving them seems to be largely a question of local discretion.

Incremental error

 I love cuisenaire rods. I had a set as a kid, and I think a deal of my enjoyment in teaching with them, is that they spark off warm memories. I was quite disappointed to find that the set we have now is not very accurate. As you can see, the incremental errors add up. This definitely did not happen in my old set, because I can remember making colourful squares out of them. These ones don’t do it so well. The end result is all wonky and not very satisfying.

Still, outside of getting another set (not going to happen), there is not much to do about the fact, other than tut about how they don’t do things the way they used to when I was young. The boys don’t seem to mind.

Adding with cuisinaire rodsI like that they are colourful. Peter Buzan, in his very interesting books on mindmapping, makes quite a convincing set of arguments on using colour to reinforce ideas. Especially for kids just learning to count, the idea that, for instance, 2+6=8 means juggling a few different concepts at once. They have to be able to read and write the numbers, understand that they are conceptual representations, remember what order they go in, and work out how they interact. By contrast, putting a dark green and red block together to equal a brown one is automatic.

Maths posters for cusinaire rodsAs well as the addition poster which hangs on the fridge, we also have a multiplication graph which is stuck to the cupboard. The colour coding is perfect for this sort of thing. They can be understood at a glance, and because they are always on view, I like to think the kids will absorb some of this by osmosis. With the multiplication graph, I was trying to give a sense of the relative size of numbers. This is an idea they struggle with a little at the moment. Every number over one hundred currently seems to be more or less equally massive.Ion gradients in lightning

Being a very visual person, I like to make use of pictures and diagrams in my lessons, regardless of the subject. The ones and twos make great positive and negative ions when we talk about electricity. Here is a diagram of a storm where all the positive ions are lifted into the clouds, the negative ions are pulled down to earth, and then the positives are running down the ion gradient as a lightning bolt.

Using the same principle, he was also able to describe actions potentials firing along a cell wall. This impressed me no end.

DensityDiagrammatic things that they are, we also found them to be very helpful in discussing density. The ones, especially, tend to get roped into this kind of work.

Cuisenaire rods are such a versatile tool. My childhood set disappeared somewhere in my early teens. My brothers and I had lost all the ones, using them as dice for various games.

Although my youngest boy cannot play a very large role in some of our maths lessons, he hangs on the fringes, plays with the rods, and works out how the different numbers relate to each other. If nothing else, he develops his fine motor skills by building elaborate little towers with them.

Honestly, if all you are doing with cuisenaire rods is counting up to ten, then you are just not using your imagination.

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About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a registered nurse, drink too much coffee, and intermittently renovate the house.
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16 Responses to It’s not part of the syllabus

  1. “Not in the Syllabus” What a load of rubbish! They are an EXCELLENT manipulative for teaching young children the foundation of our base ten system, and as you’ve pointed out, so much more. Too many teachers prefer worksheets and bookwork in maths lessons because they can not deal with the mess and noise that occurs in a classroom when 30 small people are really learning ‘hands-on’ style. Such a shame for the kinesthetic learners, (most of them in early years). I think that there should still be an old fashioned wooden abacus in every classroom as well, they are an excellent teaching and learning tool! Roll on with your Cuisinaire Rods I say, and throw away the Syllabus… Oh and bring back the MAB Blocks as well, Lord how I love those things!

    • Blokeschool says:

      I absolutely agree. I think that a lot of classroom teaching techniques are based on crowd control as much as anything else. If the boys want to take control of a lesson, I tend to let them, until the enthusiasm wanes or they veer too far off track. Consequently, they have a very hands on approach. I suspect that in a classroom environment, this would probably lead them them to be fairly rapidly tagged as problem kids.

  2. Erica says:

    My 4 year old daughter loves them. We have been using them with Miquon Math and she looks forward to it every day. The possibilities with them are endless. Between those, our pattern blocks, and the base-10 blocks we have, the kids could spend all day building!

  3. Blokeschool says:

    I haven’t come across Miquon Math before. I have just been checking it out then. It looks great.

  4. tadtown says:

    Have you been to Education Unboxed? http://www.educationunboxed.com/ If you love cuisenaire rods you might want to check it out.

  5. ‘Not in the syllabus’ is such a road block to learning! Really!

    • Blokeschool says:

      Yes. There is a real closure of thought and a complete lack of adaptability behind statements like that. For such a short sentence, it says and an awful lot, and none of it is very good.

  6. I appreciate the deconstruction of the concepts kids have to juggle in using numerical symbols. We take a lot of our own processes for granted. I was delighted to see you use the rods. Hope you get something out of this, one of my first posts:

    http://holisticwayfarer.com/2013/04/19/architecting-numbers-at-the-lower-grades/

    • Blokeschool says:

      There are a lot of hidden processes going on in maths, which are easy to take for granted. I suspect that the main reason so many people decide they ‘hate maths’ further on down the track, is that they suddenly need these concepts which they never really understood in the first place.
      Thanks for the link. I enjoyed it.

  7. laelwhitehead says:

    Since you love etymology – the word “play” comes from the Old English word “plegian” meaning “to move about briskly, to frolic” and is related to the Old German word “plegan” meaning “to rejoice, to be glad.” Our word “work” is related to Old English “wrecan” meaning “drive, pursue, hunt.” Hmm. Do we want our kids to be frolicking and rejoicing as they grow, or “hunting” after knowledge like a predator after prey?

    If it’s not playful, I say, don’t do it. And that means us grown-ups too! The attitude that life is a lot of dreary hard work and that kids should get used to the grind early on makes no sense to me at all. As a mother who raised three now-grown children with no formal schooling whatsoever, I can attest that all that playing prepared them beautifully for the task of designing rich, frolicsome and meaningful lives for themselves.

  8. Check out Jo Boaler. She really understands the fluency and flexibility with numbers concept that you seem to use. This is great! I especially loved the science connection. THIS is learning. One “teacher” is as different from another one as one homeschooler is. THIS teacher says you’re on the right track!

  9. Blokeschool says:

    I’ve just been digging through her stuff. There is certainly a heap of ideas to think over there. I will be at it for some time, I feel. Thanks very much for the lead.
    I have always enjoyed trying to make connections from one subject to another, as a student, a teacher, or just out and about generally. It makes for a much richer experience of things.

  10. Tasmanian says:

    Love your posters! Did you draw them by hand? I also love the Numicon system, which is similar but using the ten frame concept. I bought a set of pieces only (with no syllabus) and they can be used for a multitude of activities! Even packing them up reinforces which numbers work together to fit in the space of a “ten”! Most recently we have been using them for 24 + 17 etc.

    • Blokeschool says:

      I did draw them by hand. It ended up being something of a lesson in itself. I tend to make quite a few posters and elaborate diagrams for the kids. It helps me to explain things if I can draw them while I do it. These ones took a bit longer than usual.

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