Trying Mathematics the very old-fashioned way

| November 17, 2010
BY SELWYN MARX

Heads of schools often get pestered by persistent entrepreneurs who see the school as a ready market for their products.

They devise all sorts of incentives to convince you of the merits of their case – that is why most of us have someone reliable to ‘guard the gate’! However, if the gate remains too firmly shut, we could be in danger of missing out on opportunities that may be beneficial to our schools, so I try to use my discretion, keeping an eye out for anything that may be promising.

Enter the abacus

A few years back, I was visited by a consultant for a Japanese mental arithmetic system based on the abacus. What she showed me was, quite frankly, amazing – video clips of young children accurately doing very complicated mental arithmetic calculations by means of four basic operations. I was sceptical. I contended that it was quite reasonable to find a few geniuses in a large population (in this case, India) and get fantastic results – no matter the system. I threw out a challenge: if she could get these kinds of results from an ordinary group of Grade 0s, I would consider using this method more extensively at Pridwin Preparatory School.

Pridwin’s pilot programme

I gave her permission to approach our Grade 0 parents, and 15 families volunteered their boys. One of the Grade 0 teachers was trained and the pilot project began. It ran for a year, with the 15 boys getting tuition on the abacus an hour a day every day straight after school. The course consists of graded workbooks of increasing difficulty, which are completed with the aid of a mini abacus. As the level of difficulty increases, the child graduates to a full-sized abacus.

Ultimately, the goal is to perform the calculations mentally by visualising the operations on the abacus without physically using it. By the end of the year, the results were quite phenomenal. Those 15 boys, who had by now just turned six years of age, were computing at a level only expected of Grade 3s. We decided to roll it out to the whole Grade 0 group in the following year, and phase it into the Foundation Phase for half an hour a day in the early morning.

Our two Grade 0 teachers enthusiastically embraced the new challenge and, by the end of the year, our Grade 0s could add and subtract strings of numbers. This is when we began to encounter some difficulty. The Grade 1 teachers complained that the Grade 0s had not consolidated their perceptual development for numeracy. Consequently, the Grade 0 teachers – the most experienced abacus teachers – adjusted their teaching to make up some of the gaps. Not too onerous, but there were greater difficulties to overcome. The Grade 1s were in need of a challenge and new boys who joined the school after the Grade 0 year needed to start at the beginning. As a compromise, the juniors all did abacus Maths at the same time in set ability groups.

Problems for boys and teachers

A pattern began to emerge. The boys who loved Maths and displayed a natural affinity for numbers flew. They literally devoured the workbooks and began to outpace even the teachers themselves. Many of the weaker boys, on the other hand, began to fear and hate the abacus. The teachers began to struggle to keep up. The abacus was very new to them – not familiar territory at all. Although able to grasp the underlying principles, they just did not have the time – and, in some instances, the inclination – to practise on the abacus to develop their skills.

At least with the normal curriculum they were immersed in the thought processes and methodologies from childhood. Not so with the abacus. We also experienced some challenges with the franchisee who placed her own demands on the system. She wanted speedier progress than the school was able to deliver, and the expense of registering pupils and purchasing workbooks became onerous.

Sadly we dropped the programme – this despite the enormous promise that it held for many of our boys. A full teaching programme, not being able to own the process, and the limited exposure of our society to the abacus mitigated against its success. What was impressive was the way the boys were able to use the concrete manipulation of the abacus to progress fairly quickly to an accurate and efficient mental calculation of the basic operations.

Selwyn Marx is Head of Pridwin Preparatory School.

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Category: Summer 2010

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