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.
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.
I 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.
As 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.
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.
Diagrammatic 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.