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The Abacus is Helping Kids Master Math Skills

Could this ancient tool help students with modern-day math?

By:  |  November 1, 2022  |    748 Words
GettyImages-1239682239 Abacus

(Photo credit should read Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Math is one of the most challenging subjects for many kids. A lack of confidence, a reliance on memorization, and high levels of pressure mean that students often struggle to understand this complex subject. Yet, for many, a simple piece of equipment is proving to help when it comes to mastering mathematics skills. The abacus is an ancient counting device made up of beads and rods that aid in solving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. To use the device, a person counts by moving the beads to different positions along the rods.

The exact origin of the abacus isn’t known, but early versions can be traced back to Mesopotamian society in around 2700–2300 BC.

How the Abacus Helped Dhruv

Dhruv, a British boy of Indian heritage, was struggling to do addition and subtraction problems at school. His mother, Dr. Rashmi Manti, noticed the problem and decided to introduce her son to an abacus. She used the tool when she was a child, which helped her view and calculate numbers in a different way. Within six days, she started seeing an improvement. By the age of 12, Dhruv had gotten so confident with math that he started giving online cyber-security seminars and is now pursuing a career in Data Science – a field that looks at statistics, including lots of numbers.

Dhruv’s mom is extremely pleased with the results. She said, “I never thought I would teach him using an abacus, but it was something I used as a child in India and it was always helpful.”

“I decided to change the way he looked at numbers … An abacus is a tried and tested method, the Egyptians used them for building the pyramids,” Dr. Manti added. “They become a playing tool for younger children, it feels like a game. I think the success comes because children can touch and feel an abacus and visualize them.”

An Ancient Tool in the Modern Day

GettyImages-1185415528 abacus

(Photo by Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Other countries in Asia, Europe, and Russia have used abacuses as learning tools for centuries. The ancient technique has not lost its usefulness in Japan, as thousands of Japanese students still use the device today. Known there as a soroban, the abacus is no longer an official part of the curriculum, but many teachers still encourage its use. Students can also take soroban courses as an elective or extracurricular activity.

In July 2022, hundreds of Japanese students gathered in Kyoto to compete against one another and show off their soroban skills. The contest winner was 16-year-old Daiki Kamino, who calculated a 16-digit sum using the methods learned with an abacus. He shared a bit of his thought process, saying, “I listen and move my fingers and repeat the numbers in my head. As soon as I hear the unit like trillion and billion, I start to move my fingers.”

One Japanese businesswoman, Chika Yamauchi, recently took a more modern approach and developed an app that uses the same calculation methods as an abacus. Though the app is virtual, pupils can still use a hands-on approach as they move the beads on the screen. As a result, the kids feel as though they are playing a game, all the while improving their math skills.

Spreading the Abacus Around the World

One group of students has been trying out the abacus in Sydney, Australia. “I think it’s probably heaps better than a calculator because with a calculator you just press some buttons but here you use your brain,” says Gabriella, who is learning to use the ancient tool. Teacher Benson Ng, who learned how to use the abacus in Taiwan, says the benefits are greater than just learning math. “It trains the brain to be active and in a way it’s good for memory, good for imagination, listening and observation,” he commented.

Jeonghee Lee, the world abacus champion, believes that every person should know how to use the math tool. Now 59, Lee began using an abacus in the fourth grade and mastered the skill. She moved from South Korea to the US to help others learn the ancient technique and hopes that she can help improve the tool’s popularity worldwide. “My dream is to spread [its usage] around the world,” Lee said. “It improves your memory. Everyone needs the abacus.”

Do you think an abacus could be useful in American classrooms? Would it help American students understand math and calculate numbers?

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