Algebra Tiles- from counting to completing the square
I have become increasingly interested in visual models recently as a way of introducing topics. Visual models have the power to illustrate concepts in their rawest, simplest form without the misleading associations that words and abstract notation can introduce. I’m convinced concrete/visual model introductions should form an increased part of my practice, but the question that interests me is which visual models should I use? There are obviously many considerations, but one is how comprehensively they cover the syllabus. A visual model that demonstrates expanding brackets particularly well would not be that useful if it could not also demonstrate the concept of factorising. Through much reading I believe I have found two visual models that cover the vast majority of number and algebra topics. They are almost mutually exclusive too, complementing each other by covering different, rather than overlapping parts of the curriculum.
The first visual model is bar modelling. The more I experiment with it in lessons, the more I am convinced it can open the door to so many topics that many mid-to-low attaining learners previously found inaccessible. I wrote recently (click here to view) about all the many different topics bar modelling can be used for- from basic fractions work, through FDP, ratio and up to reverse percentages and compound interest.
In contrast to bar modelling, I believe algebra tiles is a very powerful concrete/visual modelling technique that can be used to develop conceptual understanding of topics. In this post I will explain how the algebra tiles model works and demonstrate how it can be used to introduce a great many topics that bar models are not suitable for.
Before I go any further I want to make it clear that I do not think all students need to experience visual models when topics are introduced. Teachers should use them selectively when they think they are needed and will support students’ learning. Visual models often fall down for particular variations of question and they are not meant to replace abstract reasoning, merely be a bridge to it for students that need it.
Basic rules of algebra tiles
It is anticipated that you will make these tiles as physical resources for students to use.
Four operations using algebra tiles including with negative numbers
Types of number
All of the above concepts are relatively trivial and you may have used variations on the algebra tile model when teaching them. For example, using multi-link cubes to derive factors or show the square numbers. However, what is powerful about the algebra tiles model is how seamlessly is transfers to algebraic concepts…
Collecting like terms
Completing the square
Like bar modelling, I like the way that algebra tile models cover so much of the syllabus. Whilst bar models cover mainly FDP and ratio, algebra tile models seem to cover the other topics in number and algebra. Rather than competing with bar modelling, it seems to complement it.
I’ve not used algebra tiles in my lessons yet and will do some experimenting in the coming months. I particularly want to focus on whether their use enhances students’ understanding of concepts- whether they see the links between the visual and the abstract.
At present I’ve not found many resources out there to scaffold and support this approach. If you know of any please do let me know so I’m not reinventing the wheel! If you have a go with algebra tiles (or bar modelling) yourself let me know how you get on and what you learn as you go along.