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Please don't impose teaching jargon on children

This week I learned a new word:  'Manipulative'. 

OK, that's not strictly true,  I already knew the word manipulative, but only as an adjective describing people who use psychological ploys to influence the behaviour of others to their own ends.

My discovery this week was that 'manipulative' can also be used as a noun.  Originally an Americanism, it's a word that is now regularly cropping up in some children's maths lessons (two of my own children have heard it).  A 'manipulative' is a prop that allows you to present an abstract idea as something concrete.  Numbered buttons and cuisenaire rods are examples of manipulatives.

If you are a teacher, then you probably already knew this, but it's easy to forget almost no other adults have ever heard the word manipulative used as a noun.

I'm not disagreeing with the concept of 'manipulatives' - they are important and useful, and I've used them with my own children.  And it's fine for the word to be used as shorthand between educationalists.  But when a piece of expert terminology starts leaking out into common usage it becomes jargon, and my alarm bells ring.  Especially when the people being expected to understand the word are children.

The phenomenon of jargon leaking into the classroom is not new, nor is it exclusive to maths. Readers of my previous blogs will know my feelings about primary children being forced to learn about 'fronted adverbials'. And one thing that can be guaranteed about a bit of jargon is that it will eventually die out, to be replaced by something else. 

My biggest concern with the noun 'manipulative' is that it's a five syllable mouthful:  try saying the word a few times, and you'll soon find your tongue becoming tied.  Time spent by a child processing a long word is time not spent thinking about what the word is trying to convey.

There is a golden rule of clear communication that you should never use a long word when a short word will do.  So, if there's a need to use a word during lessons to describe the things that turn abstract ideas into physical processes, please make it a simpler word.  "Props", for example.


Since writing this blog, I've discovered new big words being introduced to primary children in maths lessons.  If you are not a primary teacher, you might be shocked to hear that a ten year old might now be expected to grapple with the following arithmetical terminology:  minuend; subtrahend, augend, addend.