Cuisenaire® Rods Come To America
A Reflection from Jeffrey Sellon, CEO (ret.), Cuisenaire Company of America
Spreading the Word
In 1953, Dr. Caleb Gattegno, a mathematics professor at the University of London, visited Georges Cuisenaire. Dr. Gattegno realized that Cuisenaire’s rods provided teachers with a means for making mathematics learner-centered and an active, hands-on experience for every pupil. By agreement with Georges Cuisenaire, Dr. Gattegno began to travel around the world informing educators about the benefits of Cuisenaire Rods.
Dr. Gattegno’s new interest came to the attention of the members of The Center for Integrative Education in New York City, a small private foundation established in 1940 by Fritz Kunz. The Center invited Dr. Gattegno to the United States to introduce this new learning tool. After several visits, Gattegno offered Fritz Kunz the opportunity to represent Cuisenaire Rods in the United States. As a result, in 1958, Kunz founded the Cuisenaire Company of America and turned to his son, John, who had recently graduated from Harvard, to run the new enterprise.
Over the next several years, Caleb Gattegno and John Kunz traveled across the United States introducing Cuisenaire Rods to mathematics educators in school districts, colleges, and universities. From the very beginning, there was a great response to the materials. Here was, indeed, an innovative way to visualize the comparative value of numbers to one another, and children eagerly used the rods to grasp these relationships.
Personal Ties and a Rewarding Career
As a college student and neighbor of the Kunz family, I had the opportunity to work during the summers of 1960 and 1961 as the entire shipping department for the company. In those days, filling school orders required pulling together the selection of a few dozen items the company offered, loading them onto a handcart at the end of the day, and walking the cart two blocks to the local Post Office, where each carton was stamped and shipped.
After college, I returned to the Cuisenaire Company as one of nine full-time employees. In my absence, the demand for the rods had been pushed beyond our manufacturing and supply abilities. In those days, Cuisenaire Rods were made exclusively from wood that only grew at high elevations in the Austrian Alps and dried for one year, and then cut, stained, and coated with a special finish that was nontoxic and of the quality of fine furniture. We had to wait an entire year after we ordered the rods before we received shipment!
For two years I worked under John Kunz’s tutelage, learning how important it was to educate teachers about the underlying mathematics they teach and about how the Cuisenaire Rods could be used to teach it. The more I learned from him about the uses of the rods, the more excited I became about the materials and about mathematics. It wasn’t long before I, too, joined John Kunz and others in doing teacher workshops around the country.Becoming Part of a Bigger Movement
This early Cuisenaire Company newsletter created by Mr. Sellon was mailed three times a year to almost 100,000 educators. View an excerpt
In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, more and more manipulative materials were developed. Despite the back-to-basics movement in mathematics education in the 1970s, manipulative materials continued to make their way into elementary classrooms, and teachers were eager for in-service support to use these materials effectively with their students. During the 10-year period of 1968–1978, I presented workshops to more than 50,000 teachers, focusing primarily on Cuisenaire Rods but also on the many other manipulatives now offered by the Company.
By the end of the 1970s, the Cuisenaire Company of America had over 40 employees and had moved three times to find needed space. New manufacturing sources and materials had solved the supply problem, but teachers were confused by the push to use manipulatives while their basal texts had little or no illustration of these many materials. That changed quite suddenly as a result of the 1983 Texas mathematics textbook adoption.
At an NCTM convention in Detroit, I was approached about the possibility of including manipulative materials in the upcoming Texas adoption. As a result, I wrote a proposal to all of the textbook companies that were submitting for the adoption, offering them a way to comply with the Texas request. Even though textbook money could not be used for the purchase of the manipulative materials, those basal textbooks offering manipulatives and providing illustrations of them in their texts represented over 90% of the textbooks adopted that year. From then on, there was a substantial change in the national perception and in the use of manipulatives for teaching mathematics.
Before retiring from Cuisenaire in 1995, I remember shipping a single order to a school district that filled 20 trailer trucks—a far cry from my first summer when I could put one day’s total orders on a handcart and roll it to the Post Office. I believe that the increased availability of manipulative materials, and a commitment to teacher professional development, has improved mathematics teaching and learning for all students. And that’s what Georges Cuisenaire taught us― and what every educator really cares about.
Jeffrey B. SellonCuisenaire Company of America, Retired CEO