Abacus! Abacus!


One thing that I’ve struggled with during the entirety of my academic career is the seemingly inefficient method that my brain seems to have developed to do math. Well, specifically arithmetic. I had had this nagging feeling for awhile that my arithmetic abilities were being routed through my linguistic processing centers, and this seemed to slow things down because I kept having to sort of translate between the words for numbers and the quantities they represented, and call upon a sort of linguistic/symbol database for number relationships. When doing calculations I whisper number names and such to myself as I go, and I’ve noticed that sometimes the words I’m whispering don’t really correspond to what I’m calculating. I was never particularly fast or good at arithmetic, but I really like math in general. I like algebra, I like geometry, I like trigonometry, I like using math to describe physical realities and relationships.
Turns out, this routing of math through language processing centers is very common, and probably an artifact of traditional Western teaching methods.

Enter the Abacus.  Apparently, math training involving the abacus routes number knowledge through the visual and kinesthetic processing systems, which appears to be much faster and more reliable for more people than routing it through language.

Here’s a link to some info about current research on this topic:


The abstract to Michael C. Frank and David Barner’s paper:

Mental abacus (MA) is a system for performing rapid and precise arithmetic by manipulating a mental representation of an abacus, a physical calculation device. Previous work has speculated that MA is based on visual imagery, suggesting that it might be a method of representing exact number nonlinguistically, but given the limitations on visual working memory, it is unknown how MA structures could be stored. We investigated the structure of the representations underlying MA in a group of children in India. Our results suggest that MA is represented in visual working memory by splitting the abacus into a series of columns, each of which is independently stored as a unit with its own detailed substructure. In addition, we show that the computations of practiced MA users (but not those of control participants) are relatively insensitive to verbal interference, consistent with the hypothesis that MA is a nonlinguistic format for exact numerical computation.

The link to a pdf of the complete paper is available through the blog linked above.

Armed with this knowledge, I am now very motivated to teach Z-boy the use of the abacus.

Right Start Math curriculum makes use of an abacus developed specifically for their program, and it looks pretty good, and even a bit Montessori.  If only I had a couple of hundred dollars to spend on the complete kit.  ~sigh~.


The deluxe kit… drool..


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