If kids are going to be prepared for the careers of tomorrow, learning mathematics is essential. Math forms a critical foundation for work in high-tech and research careers. Even in our work on Cognitive Daily, Greta and I have found that our math knowledge has been stretched to the absolute limit (I’ve considered taking a brush-up statistics course to help me with some of the more numbers-heavy papers I read — and these come primarily from the *social* end of psychology research).

So when kids learn the most basic concepts in mathematics, starting in elementary school and moving beyond, teachers seek out the methods that are most effective. One approach that has met with considerable success is using manipulatives. Students use physical objects such as blocks to represent numerical concepts. Elementary-school kids love the idea of using real objects they can touch and handle. Teachers enjoy changing up the usual chalk-and-talk lessons. But do students learn more?

While the research isn’t completely consistent, many studies do suggest that manipulatives improve both long- and short-term retention of math. Here’s an abstract that’s typical of the research:

Two third-grade classes with 26 students each were selected to participate in the study. […] A 2-week geometry unit from the Silver Burdett textbook was administered in both classes. The experimental group teacher used mathematics manipulatives to teach the concepts presented in the unit, and the control group teacher used only drawings and diagrams to teach concepts. Analysis of covariance revealed that the experimental group using mathematics manipulatives scored significantly higher in mathematics achievement on the posttest scores than the control group.

Obviously this is a small study, but there’s a lot of additional research out there on manipulatives. This wiki entry offers a good basic summary. The strongest effects are in affect: children *like* math more when using manipulatives. But many studies have also found that when manipulatives are correctly used, both short- and long-term retention is improved.

Unfortunately, many classrooms don’t have manipulatives because there simply isn’t the funding. Some schools only have partial sets, or sets that must be shared among several different classrooms. That’s why one of the fundraisers in our Donors Choose challenge will give a teacher a full set of manipulatives for third- through fifth-graders. Ninety percent of the students in this school are in poverty, meaning their income is less than $23,000 per year for a family of four. These are the kids that can benefit the most from a little extra help, and whose families are least able to offer it.

Let’s see if we can fully fund this challenge by October 12! If our readers get us close, Greta and I will donate the rest out of our promised $600 donation to make sure this important project gets funded.

One other thing: Seed Magazine will be matching gifts up to $15,000 in total donations, so whatever you donate now will not only be supported by us, but matched by Seed!