Gattegno's Books Flawed? - Play Discover Learn 24/7

Gattegno’s Books Flawed?

It’s not uncommon to hear the complaint about where to start in the series of Gattegno’s textbooks.  In fact, I don’t really believe this is the real question that we often are thinking about though it is generally the first one we verbalize.  The fact is there are several challenges that the average person has when beginning Gattegno’s textbooks.


Why are Gattegno’s books so hard to conquer at first?  To start, there are no diagrams.  In our digital age, we are bombarded with images all day long.   We think in images and we communicate with images.   It’s hard to digest such a concentrated piece of text without anything to look at to help us develop our understanding especially when math is a very visual subject.

This is not a new criticism but one that has been from the beginning.  Gattegno purposefully designed the textbooks this way and defends it adamantly.  His expectation was that you would use the Cuisenaire rods alongside the textbook, and it seems he believed that diagrams would prevent such an interaction.

Is Gattegno right?  The benefit of this is that if you really want to understand how to teach with Cuisenaire Rods you really have to pull out the rods and start playing with them.  I have personally seen the benefit of this.

Even with that, I still think Gattegno does us an injustice to exclude diagrams.  There is a heavy assumption that anyone using this book understands all the math that lies within a picture of nicely placed Cuisenaire Rods.  There is a desperate need for diagrams, and it’s why I appreciate Arithmophobia No More’s blog.  She has taken the time to go through the textbooks and provided diagrams and digestible information.


It is my personal frustration with the books at the beginning.  I didn’t understand how to teach in such a fashion or where it was taking me.  It’s way too scripted and I didn’t understand the theory enough to know how to adapt it or to prepare for the questions my children might have.

It’s why I highly recommend reading his books and articles on his pedagogy of “teaching subordinate to learning.”  It wasn’t until I started to read about this pedagogy that I really started to love, love, love Cuisenaire Rods.  In fact, because Gattegno is such a deeply philosophical writer I would highly suggest reading books and articles by his followers first before jumping down his rabbit hole.

Followers, like Madeleine Goutard, Arthur Powell and Dave Hewitt,  have deeply impacted the way in which I teach in almost every subject.  They have taken Gattegno’s pedagogy and made it more accessible as they present Gattegno’s ideas in a more condensed and digestible form.

Most of us are just moms and dads who just want to be better teachers.  We tired of fighting over math or are looking for a more organic and natural pursuit of math.  We often aren’t learned in the world of high level mathematics. (If you are looking for more resources to help you, check out my Cuisenaire Rod resource page.)


Another difficulty parents have is finding where to start because for many of us we started teaching math a few  years ago in the traditional form. Gattegno teaches many math concepts side by side where the traditional form is more progressively building upon concepts.  Gattegno teaches multiplication, division and fractions side by side with addition and subtraction.  This can deeply impact where you start in the series of textbooks.

It’s hard to overcome that mental block of going back to the beginning especially when you are four or five years into math, but should you?   I can’t answer this question right off for you.  It really isn’t black and white.  It depends on how far along you are and how your children feel about math.

What I can tell you is if you come to Cuisenaire rods because math has become a subject of contention, I highly recommend a period of DE-Mathing.  You may have heard of de-schooling.  It’s a period of adjustment where you take a break from “learning” as you have tradtional done in the past.  I wouldn’t say its a period of no learning.  Just play with the blocks for a while, and that means you too not just your kids.  Play and see what your child discovers naturally, and take note of what you learn too.  This period of DE-mathing is just as important for you as it is for them.

During this time, read all you can about Gattegno and his ideas.  Remember, his books are freely available online and plus bloggers and articles.   I still bought physical copies of many of Gattegno’s books because I find them less intimidating that way and more usable, but whatever you do, read all you can on the pedagogy behind the Cuisenaire rods first.

While you are De-mathing, your questions on where to start will most likely be revealed to you.


When you first pull out Cuisenaire rods for your children to play with freely, you will be amazed at all the cool stuff they create.  So after de-mathing for a while, your might struggle with some of the mundane tasks that Gattegno provides in his textbook.

It was hard to transition my children from building freely to constrictive building for the purpose of structured learning.  Building “trains” which is merely placing rods end to end will only appeal to the child for so long.  Honestly, you are going to need to get real creative no matter how old or young your child.  It’s why I created the activities that I did.  I wanted to create activities that would provide structured learning opportunities for my children but still appeal to their imaginative inclinations.

Of course, you don’t need my activities to accomplish this.   You merely need to tap into your child’s imagination to appeal to them.  It does take time and effort.


Why Gattegno?  The pedagogy is what makes all this worth it.  It is a pedagogy that puts children in charge of their learning and let’s the teacher merely provide simple tasks for discovery. Gattegno’s textbooks are a guideline for the teacher, and I say that because even Gattegno wanted teachers to have freedom of flexibility to adapt to the needs of the child.

He created those books after years of classroom work.  He knows how to get a child from point a to point b no matter their background.   The greatest importance is that the student does the explaining while the teacher only helps to take what the child has explained and turn it into the arbitrary form of communication.

Simply put, the child discovers that 2 yellows end to end like a train is the same length as an orange rod, and so the teacher would provide the arbitrary expression of yellow plus a yellow equals an orange or y + y = o.    You can see that the benefit is that you as the educator do not have to “educate” a student with explanations.  You are merely using specific tasks and certain question to help them become aware.

The question then becomes what tasks provide such opportunities of discoveries and how does that happen?  I provide task cards in most of my activities that I sell, but you will not find any specific order in when to offer the student the tasks.   Gattegno does have a specific order to his task presentation and you will see that trains and staircases are foundational.  Most of the exercises I have created are a form of building trains or staircases.  I have a freebie in my store with task cards that will help you to see how many learning opportunities exist in building just trains alone.

The major benefit of Gattegno’s pedagogy is not an amazing grasp on mathematics, but a major grasp on how to learn which the child will take just about anywhere with them no matter what career or passion they pursue.   A child will learn to how tinker with great ideas, discover new ones and have a passion for learning that will drive them into the future.

So get out those Cuisenaire Rods and play!

Lacy | Play Discover Learn 24/7

Knowing the best kind of learning comes from a highly motivated internal drive, Lacy Coker cultivates tools and resources that help to make learning for young children playful and self-directed.

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