How Do You Use Blocks? An Excellent Interview Question When Hiring an Elementary School Teacher

Ah, those smooth, splinter-free blocks of maple! Just reading about them in the New York Times last Sunday connected me to my childhood like almost nothing else could. I spent hours on the floor with them on into my early teens when sports, girls and boarding school finally tore me away from them. I built and built and built, designing and redesigning as I went, learning the relationships among quantities and the various ways shapes could go together…or not. I learned about stability and instability, cantilevers and gravity, and so much more. In fact, I am mostly unaware of the wonderful things it did for my brain-architecture. I do know now, what I didn’t know then, that millions of messages were ping-ponging all over the inside of my cranium as I got an idea, set a goal, found it impossible, and then tried something else. “Playing with blocks” was a matter of using many parts of my brain to solve problem after problem.

I had no trouble with mathematics growing up, and I attribute my facility mostly to this wonderful toy. The basic block is a 5.5-inch-long rectangle with a width of 2.75 inches and a depth half of that. There was a 2.75 x 2.75 square block we called a “Half” and an 11-inch-long rectangle we called a “Double.” In fifth grade, therefore, when we were told that to multiply fractions one multiplies the numerators and the denominators and then reduce the resulting fraction, it all made perfect sense to me. I had known since I was five that four halves equal a double.

Knowing blocks still exist in schools and are making a comeback gives me joy. Thank God for Caroline Pratt who invented them in 1914. My schools always featured them in classrooms up through second grade. In September of my first year at my second school, during a visit to Fern Stampleman’s second grade classroom I made the off-hand remark, “You have a lot of blocks.”

This casual, not-so-innocent comment resulted in a conversation in my office that afternoon. She came in and very calmly but passionately treated me to a long discourse on the educational value of blocks.

When she was finished, I said, “I know,” with a big smile on my face, to which she replied, “Oh.” With that we began the best of collegial friendships.

In my last school when we eliminated one of our four preschool classes, we ended up with an extra set of these wonderful blocks. All three preschool classes and both kindergartens had all the blocks they needed and had no room for more. I couldn’t interest our then first and second grade teachers in them. (There is no point in forcing them on teachers who don’t want them and don’t know how to use them.)

Nevertheless, I refused to let them go, put them in storage, and when we were looking for a second grade teacher the next year, “How do you use blocks in your classroom?” was an interview question. We didn’t hire someone until we heard a good answer. It turns out that it is an excellent question if you are looking for an elementary teacher; we found a great one. I was pleased to have also saved about $1500 by hanging on to the blocks.

If you don’t understand how a set of blocks like this is central to education, you don’t understand education.

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11 thoughts on “How Do You Use Blocks? An Excellent Interview Question When Hiring an Elementary School Teacher

  1. this is so amazing! I was a very slow learner early on (still am actually:)

    I remember those blocks and I would spend hours with them. Also, in my kindergarten classroom we could choose stations. The hottest station was the one with the cardboard bricks. We would build houses and watch them tumble. Later on, while studying to become a Montessori Educator, i gravitated to things like the Pink Tower, the broad stairs and also the bi-nomial and tri nomial cubes. It was something that in my early years of learning just didn’t get in. I am still very angst ridden about math..unless of course I am working with blocks. They make sense to me. Silly to some maybe but at age 50, I still love them. Great Article!

  2. Those are the kind of tools we parents need to optimize our child’s best time to learn, when we feel our scholls are becoming places “to stay” not places to learn.
    Thank you as mother and as a (high school) teacher.

  3. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face! I’m now thinking about when my own children were small and played with blocks all the time. And yes, we have some wonderful photographs.

    At my son’s cooperative preschool, children could spend hours playing with all kinds of blocks (or creating artwork, or pretending to be just about anything). They were free to go back and forth from the outdoor play area to the block area, or other centers of creativity. School has never been the same for my son since, unfortunately (he’s now a teenager).

    The simple things are so powerful, yet so underappreciated these days. It’s time to go back to basics for sure. Thanks for reminding us, Rick!

  4. When I was teaching middle school math in Chicago in the mid 70s, we had several kits of what were called “Alge-Blocks.”

    In each kit you had eleven square trays, about 6 inches by 6 inches of processed wood. In those trays would fit:

    1 A Block – the big square, we called it
    2 B Blocks – halves
    3 C Blocks – thirds
    4 D Blocks – etc
    5 E Blocks
    6 F Blocks
    8 G Blocks
    9 H Blocks
    10 I Blocks
    12 J Blocks
    16 K Blocks

    Wisely omitted were 7ths, 11ths, 13ths, 14ths, and 15ths.

    Each block had its letter name on it, but nothing else — you had to come up with what mathematical name to give it yourself.

    As you can imagine, the possibilities for teaching all kinds of fractions, comparisons, ratios, and percentages were endless. And for fun during rainy or snowy lunchtimes when kids couldn’t be outside, we could always build domino-falling patterns.

    Having been well-schooled at the University of Chicago School of Education in Piaget and all his theories, I was convinced that these were the best learning devices for logical thinking and mathematics — going from concrete to symbolic to abstract at your own pace — since the proverbial invention of sliced bread. How could you not understand that 1/4 = 3/12 when you could stack 3 J blocks on top of 1 D block? Or 3/8 = 6/16, being 6 K blocks sitting on 3 G blocks.

    “How many names can you find for 1/2?” would be a typical question that would start students scrambling. When I got a kid who came up with, “Hey, would 1 1/2 3rds work?,” I knew I was on to something (these were clearly the kids heading into AP math).

    The I blocks — 10ths — we couldn’t do without when it came to making the transition from fractions to decimals. Seeing 3 I blocks in the tray gave life to hearing the teacher say “Point three,” whatever that means.

    The problem with these blocks is that the 12th and 16th blocks got very small, about an inch or so on each side, and soon disappeared into various nooks and crannies in the classroom. Also, we didn’t have enough sets for the whole class to use at once.

    I later learned from various National Council of Teacher of Mathematics conferences that as computers came into classrooms, someone invented a virtual version of these blocks that you could move around on the screen. While that might have been good for demonstration purposes, it still did not substitute for kids physically manipulating objects, and going through all those private brain synapse connections that you talk about, Rick.

    I must confess — hope the statute of limitations has run out — that when I left the Chicago school system, I took one set of Algeblocks with me. They sat in my garage for quite a few years. I think my son has them now. He’s only 34.

    You folks who are still working in schools, are these kinds of blocks still being used at all?

  5. Thank you all for your enthusiastic understanding. Allan, great story about the Algeblocks–let’s get them back in play!!!

  6. I guess you’d hire me. I was just talking with my classes just today about how they need to not think of pattern blocks as something they used in Kindergarten, but that mathematicians and scientists use them to figure and explain.

  7. Even as a current math teacher, I don’t remember ever ‘doing math’ with blocks. But they provided lots of fun and creative play!

    Yes, a great “interview question”. As part of many community college hiring committees, I was disappointed by how few questions focused on teaching and student learning. Sometimes I was able to squeeze in both “Other than a textbook, recently what books or articles have you read about math or teaching?” and “While teaching last year, tell me anything new you tried. Did it work or not?” Colleagues and interviewees were surprised to hear the ‘or not’ part of the latter question.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly with the various points made in your article.
    I was teacher trained in the UK with Dene’s apparatus, Cuisinaire rods and Piaget. That was 1970-1974. Since 1987, I have been teaching teachers and home schoolers about the benefits of manipulatives at ALL ages.
    Now I firmly believe the Mortensen Math Method is best. It combines the use of the best set of blocks with a unique model derived largely from Maria Montessori’s work.
    I’ve posted numerous articles on my site supporting the theme of your article Rick, it’s great to see another enthusiastic proponent. Keep up the good work.

    Geoff White, B.Ed.

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