Walk into an early elementary school classroom and you are likely to see lots of manipulatives. From Popsicle sticks to Cuisenaire rods we have a strong intuitive sense that these objects should help children learn mathematics.
Not so fast, says Sara Fulmer over at The Learning Scientist;
Although manipulatives can increase students’ attention, this attention may not benefit their learning. In fact, the very aspect of manipulatives that capture students’ attention—bright colors, visual appeal, realistic features—may be their downfall. Manipulatives that are more visually interesting or realistic can increase off-task behavior, such as building or sorting (1). This is especially true if students interact with that object in other contexts, such as during play time or outside of the classroom.
Students who learn with manipulatives can become too reliant on the object and context, and as a result, have difficulty transferring their knowledge to new contexts, different testing formats, or to abstract representations (e.g., algebraic expressions) of the problem