It all adds up
Natalia Sidor describes how children of all ages can benefit from learning how to use an abacus – and not just for mathematical calculations.
As an Early Years Educator, there are four theorists whose practises and ideas I agree with over all others:
Piaget, Montessori, Dewey and Vygotsky. These behavioural learning theorists think that the potential for learning which is not just conditioned by “facts” to be acquired, but by the kind of stimulus received during the learning process. Furthermore, I have noticed as students strive to find answers to problems, the effectiveness of their learning reflects their personality, which must be given due consideration when we are teaching. Another factor to perhaps consider is the personality of the teacher and the development of the student/teacher relationship which can also have a positive or negative impact on their performance.
Time to reflect
As an Early Years teacher, I personally experienced some years ago a new and different approach to teaching and learning that made me reflect on my own practice and change my performance. This change provided me with the key to improve the motivation and learning outcomes of my students. This new approach is based upon the use of the abacus, a tool that in recent years has been introduced to schools in western countries but has been used for millennia in Asia. Today, the abacus is taught in schools and after-school programmes in many parts of Asia, including Japan, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and India.
Soroban (Japanese abacus) and Anzan
While conducting research, I found there were different methods available to teach students how to calculate using an abacus such as: Soroban training (Japanese Abacus) and Anzan (the Japanese method of teaching mental math by using a conceptual image of an abacus). The Soroban abacus, originally introduced to Japan from China around the 16th century was refined over time and is very practical in its method. It continues to remain popular because it also develops and improves concentration and memory skills. A person calculating with an abacus uses the visual and motor areas of the brain in a way that is different to a person using pencil and paper. So, it may be the case that using the visual part of the brain does improve mathematics. When visualising the abacus (using the anzan technique) students create mind maps and focus on what they are doing as they perform calculations mentally.
The importance of practice
Once the skill of using an abacus is mastered, students from different age ranges (between 5 and 13 years of age) have the ability to add, multiply, subtract and divide much faster and more effectively than with paper, pencil or calculator. Successful outcomes does not necessarily depend on the age of the student, but on their learning pace.
Children enjoy learning by doing and using the abacus is skill-based and fun. In Asia, for example, abacus calculation is treated like any other sport. There are different levels and although it is not compulsory to practise every day, as with any sport, the more children practise, the more they will improve. In my experience, the abacus lessons flow within the realms of creativity, performing both mathematical activities and didactic games. Children not only improve their ability to calculate but also advance other cognitive skills, such as visualisation, attention, concentration, imagination and photographic memory. Didactic games that enhance cognitive skills also enable children to work together in teams where they learn to collaborate and put forward their points of view. Through meaningful play children are motivated as they discover their world.
About 6 months after the children began their abacus training in my class, parents also began to notice the wider educational benefits their children derived from the experience. This led them to become more actively involved in their child’s learning which in turn resulted in greater motivation for the children. One parent commentated that their child was not only faster when performing mental calculations but also saw an improvement in their child’s reading skills. Other parents observed that their children seemed to gain confidence – as their general concentration improved their performance in other subject areas also profited.
Freedom and independence
I fully appreciate the independence this programme gives children while helping them to understand mathematics. This freedom is due to the fact that abacus lessons are perhaps less rigid than the average arithmetic lessons and encourage children to explore and fully comprehend concepts. Often, children who rely entirely on their rote memory for answers to questions find they are unable to answer the same question if it is presented to them in other ways.
As children become more proficient at using the abacus (which in my view is a remarkable stimulus) they continue to develop positive feelings towards mathematics and in particular mental arithmetic.
Natalia Sidor is currently working as an early years teacher at ALOHA Mental Arithmetic Ireland.
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