The teacher reads aloud the numbers that his students must add. They are large figures, up to 11 digits, and he recites them very fast. At very high speed, the students move their fingers and move small balls on a wooden instrument. Tac tac tac tac tac is heard in the classroom at a frantic pace. The teacher finishes. A student raises her hand. Result ?: 9 quadrillion, 348 billion, 494 billion, 63 million, 70,450.
Correct answer! The student has got the math mess right in a few seconds and without using a calculator. He has mentally added it with the help of an abacus.
In Japan, where this class takes place, this thousand-year-old invention that has been discontinued in most of the world is still very much in force. In primary schools, it is taught at the basic level, but there are specialized schools. Proponents of this method praise its contribution to the cognitive development of the very young, strengthening their memory, concentration, and patience.
An ancient invention
Several ancient civilizations already used the abacus as a tool for counting and tracking large sums. Its exact origin is unknown, but some references to the abacus date back as far back as the time of the Babylonian Empire, around 1,000 years BC.
It consists of a wooden splint with parallel ropes and wires. In each of them, there are ten movable balls. With this instrument, you can make simple arithmetic calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but also other more complex ones.
“The abacus arrived in Japan in the middle of the 16th century. Small private schools that then taught reading, writing, and arithmetic were common. The use of the abacus spread throughout Japan, says Kazuyuki Takayanagi, a teacher of the abacus. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the Showa period, many specialized abacus schools were opened.
It is believed that education with this tool later played an important role in Japan's notorious postwar recovery, adds the teacher.
This very old tool is no longer in use in most parts of the world. However, thousands of Japanese students learn mathematics with the abacus or soroban as it is known in Japanese.
Takao Taniguchi, another Japanese abacus teacher, explains that there are soroban classes for the third and fourth grades of primary school, but that it is only a few hours. To learn it better, many students take extra abacus classes after school, says Taniguchi. Typically, students taking these extracurricular classes are between the ages of 5 and 20.
Students receive grades known as kyu and dan, similar to belts awarded in martial arts. A 10 soroban dan is the highest rating. Whoever receives it means that he can calculate with great speed and precision.
A cognitive development tool
When the electronic calculator began to be used, people saw the abacus as a relic of the past. But learning to handle this tool helps to process information more quickly and efficiently. Since the 20th century, it has been just another calculator, but for us, it is a cognitive development tool, says Takayanagi.
Proponents of the abacus consider it a tool that not only improves mental maths but also memory and concentration. Hand movements create a mind-body connection that makes calculating an active and engaging process.
Ryosuke Kuno, a student with a 4 dan on an abacus, began studying it at the end of his last year of kindergarten. Now I think I calculate faster in math classes and concentrate better. I can multiply six-digit figures in my head and come up with the result in about 11 seconds," says Yu Ohira, another student with 10 dan.
We believe that soroban helps develop the right hemisphere of the brain. When using a digital calculator, it does the math, but the abacus makes you think and move your fingers. Everything is done by the human brain, says Takao Taniguchi, another professor. With the abacus, students learn to be patient, concentrate and process information better.
Kimiko Ohira, another educator of the tool, says that thanks to her daughter has much better concentration, in addition to the mathematical skills she acquires. “It amazes me how quickly my daughter learns content for her exams. I think it is because he has learned to concentrate.
Hiiro Saito, another student with 10 dan, describes how she concentrates when calculating: When I do mental calculations, I feel that the inside of my head goes dark and I can only see the columns and balls of the abacus.
Scholars recognize that despite its benefits, it is not an easy tool to use, especially if it is not practiced from an early age.
Learning the abacus from the beginning as an adult can be a bit difficult because they are used to other calculation methods. But if these students continue to study abacus, the benefits can last a lifetime, says Takayanagi.