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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Educ. | doi: 10.3389/feduc.2019.00081

Building blocks of mathematical learning: virtual and tangible manipulatives lead to different strategies in number composition

  • 1Centro de investigación Básica en Psicología, Facultad de Psicología, Universidad de la República, Uruguay
  • 2Facultad de Información y Comunicación, Universidad de la República, Uruguay
  • 3Instituto de Computación, Facultad de Ingeniería, Universidad de la República, Uruguay
  • 4Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo, Universidad de la República, Uruguay
  • 5Department of Information and Communication Technologies, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain

Multiple kinds of manipulatives, as traditional, virtual or technology-enhanced tangible objects,
can be used in primary education to support the acquisition of mathematical concepts. They
enable playful experiences and help children understand abstract concepts, but their connection with cognitive development is not totally clear. It is also not clear how virtual and physical materials influence the development of different strategies for solving instructional tasks.

To shed light on these issues, we conducted a 13-day intervention with 64 children from first
grade, divided into three groups: Virtual Interaction (VI), Tangible Interaction (TI), and Control
Group (CO). The VI group played a fully digital version of a mathematics videogame BrUNO and the manipulation of virtual blocks took place on the tablet screen. The TI group played the same videogame with digitally augmented tangible manipulatives. Finally, the CO group continued with their classroom curricular activities while we conducted the training, and only participated in the pre- and post-test evaluations. Our results highlighted that the use of tangible manipulatives may improve children’s mathematical abilities.

Of most interest, we recorded children’s actions during all the training activities, which allowed us to achieve a refined analysis of participants’ operations while solving a number composition task. We explored the differences between the use of virtual and tangible manipulatives and the strategies employed. We observed that the TI group opted for a greater number of blocks in the number composition task, whereas the VI group favoured solutions requiring fewer blocks. Interestingly, those children whose improvement in mathematics were greater were the ones employing a greater number of blocks. Our results suggest that tangible interactive material increases action possibilities and may also contribute to a deeper understanding of core mathematical concepts.

Keywords: Digital manipulatives, tangible manipulatives, technology-enhanced learning activities, Mathematics, Additive composition

Received: 16 Aug 2018; Accepted: 23 Jul 2019.

Edited by:

Firat Soylu, University of Alabama, United States

Reviewed by:

Jennifer M. Zosh, Pennsylvania State University, United States
Kasia Muldner, Carleton University, Canada  

Copyright: © 2019 Pires, González Perilli, Bakała, Fleischer, Sansone and Marichal. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Ana C. Pires, Centro de investigación Básica en Psicología, Facultad de Psicología, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay,