The Ancient Abacus: Does it have a place in the classroom?

In a recent post, I shared a video of Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk that explores how the use of computers in the teaching of mathematics leads student to a richer math learning experience. But lately, I’ve been wondering: Could students find a similarly rich math learning experience through the abacus, a far less expensive medium than a computer?

the ancient abacus

While listening to NPR over the winter break, I heard a story on how the abacus is “making a comeback.” Due to a perceived easing of standards, one school brought back the use of the abacus to strengthen the students’ mental math abilities. The article interviews teachers and students who extol the virtues of the abacus and the focus it brings to students as they learn.

Personally, I would love for my son (a five-year-old kindergartner) to learn how to use this ancient tool to hone his mental math abilities. Perhaps he could even develop Anzan, the ability to use a mental abacus, which is a highly revered skill that can be honed through repeated use of the abacus. I have seen one boy, Kayden, develop Anzan at the age of 6 and am amazed at how quickly the abacus became second nature to him. I know if I put the abacus in front of my son, he will be interested in it for a bit but like all other toys that don’t make noise or interact with him, the novelty may soon wear off.

Do tools in this age of technology need to be computers or handheld electronic devices in order to be effective educational tools? I have read articles, like on how schools are adopting iPads; I’ve also visited schools that supply laptops for their students. They use these tools in their math classes for several reasons: investigations, explorations, remediation, preparation, repeated exercise, and entertainment (sadly enough, this has been come to be known as “edutainment”). But I have never seen a technology tool develop a students’ mental math abilities like an abacus does.

I realize that an abacus would be limited in helping students solve the rich math problems that Wolfram demonstrated in his TED talk. I also realize that we use different tools to achieve different results. The abacus would be an appropriate tool for developing a student’s mental math skills, while a computer would be an appropriate tool for exploring mounds of statistical data. A graphing calculator, meanwhile, would help students see the Big Three Representations: algebraically, graphically, and in a table.

But when the Common Core State Standards has the practice standard “Use Appropriate Tools Strategically,” is there a place for the ancient abacus? Think about it while you’re developing your own Anzan.

10 thoughts on “The Ancient Abacus: Does it have a place in the classroom?”

  1. I attended a wonderful presentation at the Baltimore NCTM Regional last fall, presented by a teacher from Japan, showing how she used a large demonstration abacus for a number of important skills: number facts, composing and decomposing numbers, and recombining numbers while adding and subtracting. Some elements were ritual, to the rhythmic click-clack of the beads, and others involved careful thought in responding to interesting challenges. A particularly revealing interchange occurred after she showed an addition strategy that her students develop through their abacus work. One attendee asked how to teach that strategy for those students who don’t develop it on their own; her response was to explain, gently but very articulately, that they will develop the strategy themselves when they are ready, and that the teacher’s job is not to teach the strategy but to prepare them, to bring students to the point in their understanding that they develop the strategy themselves and then own it forever.

    1. I think her comment that her job is “to bring students to the point in their understanding that they develop the strategy themselves…” is one that all teachers have to take to heart. We accompany them on their journey of learning but step to the side so they can fulfill the process.
      If you thought the talk was great, you should see the students in action as they use their abacus. Lots of great videos on YouTube!

  2. I don’t use an abacus with my student but I have started using a
    (or arithmetic rack) during our daily 10 minute mental math warm ups this school year and have seen a pleasing development in my students’ number sense.

    1. I think when students can visualize the numbers in whatever form (abacus, rekenrek, base 10 cubes, etc.) students will be better served than following rules that are too abstract for them at their age.
      I used an abacus app on my iPad with my son and it was amazing how he understands place value and how numbers compare. Visualization is such a great thing.
      I also like your strategy of using the rekenrek for just 10 minutes a day. You are the drip on the stone and you will break through to understanding after repeated use of this great tool. Keep sharing, please!

  3. I learned math using an abacus at school, my son who is a first grader has been having problems doing math facts (worksheets) at school, yet at home he breezes through homework using the abacus, I’m currently insisting that he be allowed to take his abacus to school.

    1. Thanks for your post, Tania. The abacus can be a wonderful tool for a first grader. I see better number sense by my son, who is in kindergarten. You may want to show how the tool can benefit all of your son’s classmates, not just him, if you want it to be allowed at his school. Try sending some activities to his teacher so they can see it as an appropriate tool to teach number sense, place value, and simple addition.

  4. I agree that we are moving from drill and kill worsheet dogmatism to absolute digital minimalism. To me the soraban and hand held manipulatives balanced with hands- on activities should also include technological component.

    1. Great points Sachin. I think it’s really great to do a balance of hands-on and technology. Students develop understanding that technology can allow for deeper and more complex manipulations that the hands-on manipulatives eventually can’t do due to physical limitations.

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