My homeschooling friend recently made a social media post about how frustrating it is when people criticize the use of certain educational manipulatives and other tools like mnemonics in order to teach children. "Why would you want to give them a crutch?" I share her frustration.
They say it like crutches are a bad thing, when in reality, physical crutches are a very good thing in the medical world. They have the purpose of helping people walk who might not otherwise be able to. When my son broke his leg last year, moving from the wheelchair to crutches was a huge milestone for us. And as soon as he was able, he ditched them in favor of limping along with the support of nearby furniture, and eventually walking and even running on his own. He made a full recovery.
Crutches have become a derogatory term in the educational world, but I think this kind of thinking is holding us back far more than any educational tools are. If we are unwilling to explore new angles to learn new things, especially ones that are effective, fun, and attractive to children, how is this helping us to move forward?
In an educational sense, sometimes manipulatives do act like crutches, in that a student may be struggling with a concept, and so the teacher may use certain tools to get them on their feet, so to speak.
But more often than not, the manipulatives and tools we use to educate act far more like scaffolding than crutches. When we build a new home, we erect scaffolding to make it easier to build. Scaffolding plays a role that makes it easier and faster for the builders to examine and carry out all the stages of building a home, from the physical structure to the final details such as adding trim to the roof. When the home is completed, and only then, the scaffolding is taken away. I like the analogy of scaffolding for teaching tools more than crutches because this aligns better with how educational tools work.
I have found it somewhat odd and a little sad that there are people who frown on educational tools that can help children learn faster, more effectively, and permanently. And why? Because it isn't how we were taught? It's not just book learning? It's not "traditional"? Because they look like toys? It has always puzzled me. If the best way is the old way, by all means, we should pursue it. But I think we would be far better off asking ourselves what the best way is now, today, with the resources that are available to us with today's technology and collective knowledge. And if educational tools resemble toys, this shouldn't surprise us since children often learn best through play, and attractive manipulatives are going to be more inviting to children, and even adults. Admit it, we adults like colorful, playful things too when they're done right! When considering educational tools, we should be more concerned with whether a tool in question works, how well it works, if it saves time, and if it is cost effective, than whether or not our neighbor/colleague might tell us we're using crutches to teach our children/students.
And while I know that it may be obvious that I favor manipulatives and out-of-the-box thinking with all the color-coded materials, printable games and activities, videos and poetry on this website, I would encourage all types of educators to consider how our use of the term "crutches" might be holding us back. Math manipulatives, hands-on-science, art tools like stencils, sign language for spelling, all of these have been criticized needlessly.
What we really need for our children, all of our children, is educational scaffolding. Instead of asking ourselves whether educational tools ought to be used, we should be asking what the best tools for the job are. How can we accomplish xyz most effectively? What is working for people? If there is anything I have learned during our remodeling project with the new home we recently moved into, it's that the right tools for a job will make it ever-so-much easier and faster to accomplish. I know in part because I had worked on some projects with the wrong tools before we learned better and invested in the right ones, haha. Humans are amazing, and we have developed great tools for many jobs I once didn't even know existed. It never ceases to amaze me how people are always inventing new and better ways to accomplish all of the tasks we need to do in our lives. Why should education be any different?