Seeing an expert abacus user in action is a sight to behold. Their hands are a blur as they perform arithmetic operations far quicker than anyone using an electronic calculator. The mental abacus technique is even more impressive – it works just the same as a real abacus, except that you visualise moving the beads in your mind’s eye (check out this video of people using mental abacus to perform amazing feats of arithmetic).
Surprisingly, there is little research on the benefits of teaching the mental abacus technique to children. But now, for a paper in Child Development, psychologists in the US have conducted a three-year randomised controlled trial of the effects of teaching the mental abacus on 183 five-to-seven year-old children at a charitable school in Vadodara, India. Their results suggest that training in the mental abacus can have impressive benefits for students’ mathematical abilities, above and beyond those seen for standard supplementary teaching, but that these benefits may not extend to children with weaker cognitive abilities.
The children took baseline tests of their maths and cognitive abilities, then they were allocated randomly to a group to receive three hours per week extra tuition in the abacus (the first year focused mostly on the physical abacus – specifically the Japanese soroban style – and then later years graduated to the mental abacus) or to a group that received three hours per week supplementary maths tuition, following the OUP New Enjoying Maths series.
When the children’s maths and cognitive abilities were tested again at the end of the three-year study, those in the mental abacus group showed superior improvements in their maths abilities, including calculation, arithmetic and the conceptual understanding of place value, compared with the control group (effect sizes were large), and some modest advantages in their academic grades in maths and science. The mental abacus did not lead to wider benefits in cognitive abilities and it didn’t change the children’s attitudes to maths or reduce their maths anxiety – this latter result sounds disappointing, but also means the main benefit to maths ability is unlikely to be a placebo effect. Unfortunately, the exceptional benefits of mental abacus training to maths ability were not found among a subset of children who started out the study with weak spatial and working memory abilities.
“We find evidence that mental abacus – a system rooted in a centuries-old technology for arithmetic and counting – is likely to afford some children a measurable advantage in arithmetic calculation compared to additional hours of standard math training,” the researchers said. “Our evidence suggests that mental abacus provides this benefit by building on children’s pre-existing cognitive capacities rather than by modifying their ability to visualise and manipulate objects in working memory.”
Barner, D., Alvarez, G., Sullivan, J., Brooks, N., Srinivasan, M., & Frank, M. (2016). Learning Mathematics in a Visuospatial Format: A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mental Abacus Instruction Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12515