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Personal and Ubiquitous Computing

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 405–419 | Cite as

Tangibles for learning: a representational analysis of physical manipulation

  • Andrew Manches
  • Claire O’Malley
Original Article

Abstract

Manipulatives—physical learning materials such as cubes or tiles—are prevalent in educational settings across cultures and have generated substantial research into how actions with physical objects may support children’s learning. The ability to integrate digital technology into physical objects—so-called ‘digital manipulatives’—has generated excitement over the potential to create new educational materials. However, without a clear understanding of how actions with physical materials lead to learning, it is difficult to evaluate or inform designs in this area. This paper is intended to contribute to the development of effective tangible technologies for children’s learning by summarising key debates about the representational advantages of manipulatives under two key headings: offloading cognition—where manipulatives may help children by freeing up valuable cognitive resources during problem solving, and conceptual metaphors—where perceptual information or actions with objects have a structural correspondence with more symbolic concepts. The review also indicates possible limitations of physical objects—most importantly that their symbolic significance is only granted by the context in which they are used. These arguments are then discussed in light of tangible designs drawing upon the authors’ current research into tangibles and young children’s understanding of number.

Keywords

Tangible technologies Physical manipulatives Mathematics learning Educational technology Virtual manipulatives 

Notes

Acknowledgments

This research was supported by an Economic Social Research Council Case PhD studentship awarded to Professors Claire O’Malley and Steve Benford, and co-sponsored by Futurelab (Grant no. PTA-033-2006-00025). We would also like to thank the schools and children who have taken part and contributed greatly to our work.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.London Knowledge LabInstitute of EducationLondonUK
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK

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