Monday, January 14, 2013

Why we are learning Soroban Abacus

As a kid whose math/spatial/logic scores always had me placed in the advanced math class at whatever school I went to (we moved a lot), regardless of the fact that I routinely flunked math classes until high school geometry, I was a classic case of math phobia, and the belief that I was just no good at it, instilled from many years of failing to do what school required, in part because the way that school taught math, seemed to be demanding that I stop trying to think on my own, and just submit to meaningless rote, and give up on trying to really understand.

I was very good at visualizing and rotating objects and spaces in my head, but completely bumbling at arithmetic and algebra. Even memorizing formulae always felt uncertain and arbitrary because it completely sidestepped understanding the underlying logic. It was like being required to utter whole strings of unfamiliar sounds, without being allowed to learn any of the constituent words or their meanings. Until geometry, at which point I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who used the Socratic method, and most of the class, geared toward memorization, struggled, while I sailed through the class joyously. However, the next class that required a strong footing in algebraic reasoning (trigonometry) saw me struggling again, wishing I had time to develop that reasoning, but faced instead with the pressure to memorize and regurgitate, or else fail.

I saw my daughter at a very tender age, doing division with real things. She wished candy came in bags of 6, so she and her brother could each have 3 and not have one left over. I got excited and we had lots of conversations, and lots of discoveries. Odd and even numbers had real properties that interacted in ways that could be predicted logically, and then tested empirically. What we discovered ourselves, made sense and was memorable, in contrast to being handed a string of rules and told to memorize them.

But when I showed her the symbols on a page or chalkboard, her understanding went out the window. When taught by the same methods prevalent in schools, she started guessing wildly and inaccurately, afraid to get the answer wrong, and stopped trusting or engaging with her own reasoning ability. I recognized it all: the glazed look, the impression of mental wheels frozen, and the inscrutability of symbols dancing on a page. 

What a disaster! But what next? Thankfully, I heard about the Japanese abacus, the soroban. At first, seeing videos of the lightning-fast competitions where kids calculated many large numbers in their heads, I wondered what the real value of that could be, beyond impressing people. Some people memorize Pi to a hundred decimal places or more, and I see that as a complete waste of gray matter. The fact that their calculations were based on moving beads around in an imagined, visualized abacus, seemed at first glance to prove that they weren't actually calculating mentally, any more than a person using a calculator, is actually doing the calculations.

But eventually, researching it, I found that the nature of the way numeric information is stored and accessed by the brain, is different with the mental abacus, than with other methods. There are beneficial changes to the brain in using the Soroban to learn arithmetic in terms of memory capacity and white matter. It bypasses language centers of the brain, for a sort of direct link to visual/spatial reasoning. It also cultivates thinking in terms of inverse numbers, which is kind of like learning to see both positive and negative spaces in art and sculpture. Inverse numbers can also be a part of mathematical thinking without the abacus, but the abacus requires it and demonstrates it in ways that may be unique. At any rate, the numeracy skills of populations taught on the abacus seem to be superior to those not trained on the abacus, and that was enough to know, to give it a try.

So I got a soroban abacus and some workbooks from Nurture Minds,  and we have begun. 
I'm learning alongside my kids, and wish I had been given this advantage, at their ages, but even at my age, I am finding it a thrilling discovery. 

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