Abacus makes a comeback

Yojana Sharma

Renewed interest in the ancient Chinese calculator is helping pupils' motivation and ability, reports Yojana Sharma.

The abacus, the counting machine used by the Chinese for more than 2,500 years, is making a surprise comeback in the East and educationists claim that this ancient calculator has many hidden benefits.

Some elderly Chinese shopkeepers can still be seen totting up numbers swiftly and accurately using the abacus, but it was thought that the electronic calculator would relegate the bead-frame to the scrap-heap. But now abacus learning centres are springing up throughout Asia and tournaments are being held in several countries.

Japan's abacus champion, Takeshi Fujiwara, aged 13, said at a recent international tournament: "I can work out sums faster on the soroban (the Japanese for abacus) than any calculator, and I like it."

The soroban is taught in Japanese schools to all six-year-olds as an intellectual exercise. In January, Malaysia introduced the abacus for all nine-year-olds, after it was found that Chinese children who use it consistently do better at mathematics than their Malay counterparts.

Now Thai education officials are looking at the possibility of introducing it in their classrooms.

Abacus teaching is on the increase in special schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. But, in the age of the computer, the abacus is not just a tool for calculating. It is believed to sharpen the mind, aid concentration and assist learning in subjects other than mathematics.

Simon Wu, who learned to use the abacus in China, opened his own training centre in Hong Kong in 1992 to teach five-to-15-year-olds.

In the classroom, rhythmic clicks of abacus beads can be heard as Mr Wu reads out in ringing tones a string of three-digit numbers to add and subtract. Almost before he announces the last number, eager hands shoot up with the answer.

Some children do not even finger their bead-frame. They stare at the ceiling, press their palms to their temples in concentration, cover their eyes to visualise the abacus better or toy with an imaginary frame before coming up with the answer at lightning speed. After teaching children to add, subtract, multiply and divide, they are taught to calculate mentally.

It takes several months of teaching and a lot of practice to master the "mental abacus". However, children are so amazed by what they can achieve when a string of numbers is thrown at them, they are ready for anything. Parents report that their children's concentration, memory and school work improves.

"Mathematics can have a special place in confidence-building because there is only one correct answer," says one teacher. "It is easy to measure success. When a child with an abacus gets the sums right over and over again, he becomes motivated and confident in his ability. Then he can learn anything."

Mr Wu believes the concentration required to compute using a mental abacus calms children. "You can learn a lot if you are calm," he says.

Mr Wu's observation may not be so wide of the mark. Neurologists talk of a state of relaxed concentration, of brain-wave movement that is 50 per cent slower than the normal waking-thinking state which allows total concentration and synchronisation of the left and right sides of the brain.

This, according to scientific research, is the perfect state for reading, listening and other forms of learning.

There is something in the way that all the senses are used that primes the children for learning, according to Mr Wu.

The click and colour of the beads, the use of fingers and the way the teacher recites the numbers faster and faster, "like a train pulling out of a station", forces students to stay alert.

Takeshi Hatta, an assistant professor at the University of Osaka Kyoiku, found that abacus-users process mathematical concepts on the right side of the brain, the seat of intuition and imagination, rather than the left side, normally used for logic and mathematics.

This ties in with the results of research in the United States, which shows that a balance between the two halves of the brain can speed up learning, and the belief of many teachers that the abacus aids lateral thinking.

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