Books as concept manipulatives

In this short post I would like to pose a brief musing about the role of books in the learning environment. The idea stems from two other ideas, namely, the book as a physical artefact and the use of manipulatives in the classroom such as during investigations into  mathematics concepts.

Books as concept manipulatives.
Organising information and ideas.

There are a plethora of math manipulatives designed to allow students to grasp a new mathematical concept by holding it in their hands, examining it from different angles in a hands-on experiential way.  Books, as physical objects, can similarly be considered as  “concept manipulatives“. Apart from the rich stories, informational texts & all that books represent, the physical artefact that is a book gives students the opportunity to hold ideas in their hands. This is not a print versus digital argument either. It is simply an appreciation for the physical act of grasping a book or a pile of books on a subject & organising them, categorising them, classifying them, sorting them and all the while discussing & engaging with various concepts that may relate to that subject area. Even the act of searching the library shelves for a book engages the whole body in the process of research.

For example, rather than using printed images, images found on the covers of books give students the opportunity to physically organise ideas. Not only that, using books as concept manipulatives allows differentiation for students of all ages & linguistic capabilities to access literature. Books are a physical analogue of the hyperlink. If a student sees an image or title that captures their eye they are naturally drawn to open the cover to investigate what may lay inside. Watching students engage with a pile of concept manipulatives will invariably provide a rich provocation for discussion providing the teacher with insight into the understandings & linguistic skills of each student. Frequently a class will come to the VIS Library to gather books for a unit of inquiry with the inevitable consequence that students begin to debate the relevance of particular books, begin to ask questions, refine their vocabulary as they search deeper into our collection and be awed by the heavy stack of books they discover. Even before a book is read deeply, that stack of books provides a physical representation of a wealth of ideas to be discovered during their inquiries.

The physical act of moving about the book shelves, grasping a title, showing that title to a friend or teacher & collecting those books into a stack ready for deep reading later is an act that engages the learner & allows the ideas represented in those books to be carried into the learning space. Thumbing through a title, examining a table of contents, reading a blurb, being distracted by a connected line of thinking, are all functions of the physical act of holding & manipulating a book. I am certainly not arguing that this cannot happen in other ways including the digital sphere however the book as a physical object is a concept manipulative feeding student engagement.

With the advent of eBooks and electronic resources replacing large sections of a traditional reference section we are now more free to find unique & boutique books. Books that hold peculiar aesthetic qualities amplify the unique physical qualities of the book artefact. For example, books we have purchased from Tara Books in southern India are a wonderful example of this. Some of their books are hand printed & hand bound in limited quantities providing books with a wonderfully rich colour palette, textured pages, an exotic smell & cultural depth that invites long contemplation. “The Night Life of Trees” is a particular favourite of mine.

Books as a concept manipulative
Organising, discussing a favourite series of books.

With a pile of books on the carpet the students have the opportunity to take a concept such as “form”, “function”, “connection” or “perspective” as a lens through which they can investigate the ideas that may be represented by each title. I say “may” here because the book can be a concept manipulative even before it is opened. Spread out on the floor, students can search for possible connections based on the chosen concept & begin to organise them into groups, or lines, or venn diagrams or in anyway that is a response to what they have found. This kind of activity uses the concept manipulative, the book, as a physical analogue of a metacognitive dialogue. Similar to visible thinking routines, books can be used as physical representations of ideas & concepts under investigation by students.

Books as a concept manipulative.
Responding in a physical way to a physical object, a favourite series.

In fact, I frequently see students choosing to use books in this way during lunch breaks where their access to the library is voluntary & entirely student led. For example, we have a wonderful series called “Shark Fact Files” that are frequently dragged from the shelf to be spread out on the carpet & discussed endlessly by young students. The main problem I have here is explaining why a student cannot take out the entire collection because they can’t lift them or fit them in their school bag all at once (they often still do not see this as a barrier to them taking them all home). Similarly other series such as the Warrior series by Erin Hunter often receive similar treatment. So the students are already engaging with these books as physical artefacts, organising, categorising & debating how they all fit together. In short, the books become a concept manipulative. This is seen as vital to a group of boys who need to line up the shark books in order of deadliness.

In the classroom, students could use Hoola-hoops on the floor in the shape of a Venn diagram as a framework for them to organise a collection of books in various ways. Our visual arts teacher uses books with particular bindings & aesthetic qualities to investigate concepts of colour & contrast. In Ways to Learn Through Inquiry (p56-57), Jo Fahey describes using post-it notes to bookmark and tag their class books as a way to track their inquiries & promote discussion amongst students about why they tagged certain pages.

Therefore, as physical artefacts, books are concept manipulatives that provide endless possibilities in the classroom for metacognitive dialogue, conceptual play & differentiated student engagement.

Please add a comment to this post to share your examples of how you have used books as concept manipulatives.

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