If you walk into almost any elementary/primary school mathematics classroom, you should find kids using “Manipulatives.” These are physical objects—like Base 10 Blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, or Tangrams — that allow kids to explore math concepts in physical, three dimensional ways. Now, King of Math, a new digital app from We Want To Know raises the standard not only for mathematics manipulatives, but also for learning games.
For years now, all the research has shown that students learn math best with manipulatives. The National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics says that “in order to develop every student’s mathematical proficiency, leaders and teachers must systematically integrate the use of concrete and virtual manipulatives into classroom instruction at all grade levels.”
Although most of us think of math as “numbers.” Our numbers—the Hindu-Arabic numeral system—is really just a kind of code. The numbers themselves are just symbols that represent an abstract philosophical conception of the human experience in the world. That’s all mathematics is: a complex and extremely useful language through which we organize and categorize our experience. The hard part of math is not using the code, but rather learning to think about your world in mathematical terms, learning to understand what the numbers actually mean, learning to speak “math” fluently. Mathematicians and educators refer to this kind of understanding as “number sense.”
Starting math education only with Hindu-Arabic numerals just teaches kids to follow directions—they are taught to memorize a symbolic code and use it according to a set of rules that must seem completely arbitrary to them, seeing how as there’s no way for them to know that those rules are grounded in physical reality. Which is why any kid who isn’t driven by obedience alone will eventually ask, “why do I need to know this?” Starting with manipulatives, on the other hand, can teach children “number sense.”
All good (and many bad) elementary/primary school teachers understand just how essential manipulatives are to learning math and number sense. They also understand that at some point, parents (most of whom have very highly developed number sense themselves, but still understand very little about it) will inevitably walk into conferences demanding that their children stop playing so much and start receiving a “rigorous” mathematics education.
The word “rigor” literally has to do with hostility, severity, or harsh inflexibility. Check out the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll discover that the word has more to do with obedience—in both its negative and its positive connotations—than it has to do with the sort of accuracy and thoroughness with which we associate it in the context of education. I suspect most parents would prefer accuracy and meticulous precision over the “stiffness” or “cold shivers” that are implied by a fastidious definition of the word “rigor.” And to anyone who argues that our current usage is adequate because we all understand what the word means, I’d say: you’re hardly being rigorous with your use of language.
King of Math could change all that. It shows us how perfect a digital manipulative really can be—not only in the classroom with teachers, but also for kids at home alone. King of Math 2 involves a world full of animated sprites, called “Nooms,” that behave according to the rules of simple arithmetic. The app is from Andrew Weggli, a Swiss developer that makes some of the best educational apps. I regularly recommend their original app King of Math Pro, both to parents of kids struggling through 8th grade algebra, and to anyone who wants to understand the power of learning through digital play. King of Math, the company’s take on teaching Euclidean geometric proofs, was addictive for both adults and older kids. Now with King of Math 2, they prove that they can also create games for the early childhood education space.