Is ‘Mental Abacus’ a Worthy Maths Strategy?

An exploration of the mental abacus method of quickly visualising maths questions

Watching young experts of the Mental Abacus mental maths strategy is rather awe inspiring, with the technique being widely used in a few cultures within India, China and Japan. This video, uploaded by Sanjay Shedge on YouTube, shows the system being effectively used by Indian students, but what is this method, and does it have a place in other mathematics classrooms? We explore this system in a bit more detail below.

Most of us will be familiar with an abacus. There was one probably tucked away in a play box in our own early years settings and dismissed as we went into our more formal classrooms. But is the neglect of these historical mathematical devices a mistake?

Evidence has shown that early Abaci were developed 2,700 – 2,300 BC, with the earliest archaeological evidence for the use of the Greek abacus dating to the 5th century BC¹. This is one of the earliest known forms of computing devices developed by humans, beyond our own fingers, and used for centuries by merchants, traders, tax collectors and accountants, only proving less popular as electronic devices started taking the hard work out of these mathematical tasks.

So, what is so special about this mental abacus method? The speed and visualisation is clear to see. With the video above, it would actually take longer to type the equations into a calculator to get to the answer – we tried, and the children won each time! The techniques being taught are usually part of an intense 3-year after-school course where pupils are shown visualisation techniques. In their article, “Representing exact number visually using mental abacus”², Michael Frank and David Barner explored the technique, with results suggesting 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, they showed 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.

It certainly is an impressive and efficient approach, with the concentration, intensity and speed being very impressive. You can see an extract of teaching the method here. Is it a method that could work in your classroom? Who knows, but the notion and uses of the abacus should not be ignored, as it opens up plenty of learning potential for students in mathematical and computational thinking.

Article sources:

Image via H is for Home on Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

1. Ifrah, Georges (2001). The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0471396710.

2. Frank, Michael C.; Barner, David – Representing exact number visually using mental abacus. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 141(1), Feb 2012, 134-149.https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024427

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