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The companies that run these expensive abacus programs for children claim it has all kinds of benefits for their mathematics abilities and speed. Apparently it starts with a child learning the mechanics of using an abacus, giving them practice in doing so, and eventually, the child is thought to visualize an abacus in their head, as a "mental" abacus.

I don’t doubt that some kids doing Soroban classes do manage to do very fast arithmetic tasks when strings of numbers are thrown at them. But I don’t know if it’s worth doing, other than for speed in calculations.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to MESE. This has potential as a great question, but can use a bit more background. "it has all kinds of benefits..." - Can you cite some of their claims? Are you asking for members' own experience or if there are studies which show these great results? A country tag isn't required, but invited, as I know that in the US, for example, this would be considered "foreign" yet probably welcome in the Asian culture, even viewed as quaint. $\endgroup$ – JoeTaxpayer Jun 13 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ A class (grade 8) I was teaching had to learn soroban for several months. Their performance in math (and other subjects) didn't change at all. It was a waste of time and the school abandoned the project. $\endgroup$ – Paracosmiste Jun 13 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Paracosmiste This is more like 1st grade activity, not 8th grade. "Doing" soroban improves "performance" when using soroban, it does not improve "performance" of building and solving equations, which they should be doing in 8th grade. If I were a parent of an 8th grader in that school, I would question the sanity of the school leadership. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 13 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Soroban could be learned at any ages; that school did it for grades 1-8 and didn't find any improvement in any area. They also taught some teachers soroban. $\endgroup$ – Paracosmiste Jun 13 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Paracosmiste Abaci were used by merchants when \$5 solar-powered calculators did not exist, nowadays they are just toys or teaching supplements. Learning how to use one is useless for practical applications, while place value should be taught in 1st grade. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 13 at 15:45
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The article [1], according to the abstract, [claims various benefits.](https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1105219 , https://scholar.google.no/scholar?cluster=12532307503119935328)

However, it is not widely cited at all. I do not know the landscape of education journals well enough to know if the journal is of high quality. I checked the Finnish publication forum, which has rated the journal as scientific but not exceptionally good since 2017.

The method used was asking teachers if the students taking abacus classes are doing better than others. This method can not distinguish between mathematically gifted students taking abacus classes and between students taking abacus classes becoming better.

Furthermore, one would expect any engagement with mathematics to lead to improvement, so a pertinent question is if this method leads to more improvement than other activities.

The conclusions section of the article refers to other studies that might be of interest in answering the question.

[1] Altiparmak, K. (2016). The teachers' views on Soroban abacus training. International Journal of Research in Education and Science (IJRES), 2(1), 172-178.

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    $\begingroup$ Without going in too deep, are we agreeing that the article would be considered 'anecdotal' as the quantity and method of reporting isn't robust enough? $\endgroup$ – JoeTaxpayer Jun 13 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ I am really not an expert on methods of educational research; the judgement of the teachers seems quite uniform, so I would say that it is stronger than only an anecdote, but the method of finding the teachers and so on do not seem statistically rigorous. $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Jun 13 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ I can see how doing this would help with computation in school. The question in my mind is whether this helps with understanding mathematics and how to use math to solve problems and I think not. The amount of time and energy I see spent on teaching computation skills and then using performance in computation to place students in advanced classes continues to baffle me. Its almost seems like most primary school math teachers don't understand the value of knowing math and insist on training skills that are no longer relevant. $\endgroup$ – JimmyJames Jun 13 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @RustyCore I'm probably not making myself clear. When I was young, I was given an aptitude test that showed I had very good conceptual math skills but that my computation was something like 30th percentile. My grades were terrible in math because all that we were being evaluated on was computation. When we finally got past arithmetic, I was not placed in advanced placement because of my computation skills. That was many moons ago but I'm dealing with the exact same behavior with my child. No one's job title is 'computer' anymore. $\endgroup$ – JimmyJames Jun 13 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ The only thing that I see that is related that I see (skimming) "After tangible and semi-tangible stages, abstract step will be reached. One of the most important purposes of the Math Education is to teach students the ability of abstract thinking. It might not be easy to visualize the numbers and to do the operations between them by mind. For this reason the supportive materials are needed. People in the old ages used the logs." Which seems to assert that doing calculations in your head is abstract mathematical thinking. I disagree. $\endgroup$ – JimmyJames Jun 14 at 15:37
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"The companies that run these expensive programs" just want to make money. Some sell \$1B worth of iPads, other sell abaci.

Do your school budget a favor and get an abacus at Ikea for \$10. It has horizontal wires with ten beads on each, which is similar to Russian-style abacus. The wires are not curved, and the colors are just for fun not for easier grouping, but it is good enough to teach decimal system and place value. Ten beads on a wire may seem excessive — you need only nine — but come handy when you want to break a higher-place value into lower one, like breaking one thousand into ten hundreds. This abacus is much closer representation of decimal system than soroban — one wire is one decimal place.

Adding and subtracting is simple. Multiplication is more involved. Division requires some mental math, which itself can be a good reason to refresh multiplication table and division shortcuts. I think if you just explain how addition and subtraction works, that would be good enough return for your \$10.

This is a fun short story by Chekhov about a high-school tutor failing to solve a middle-school problem that the merchant father of the middle-schooler solves in seconds using abacus (called counting board in this translation). The problem can be solved arithmetically and algebraically, and the merchant solves it arithmetically, cannot do a system of equations with abacus.

MULA abacus from Ikea

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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, how does this address the question "Are soroban (Japanese abacus) classes worth doing?" $\endgroup$ – JoeTaxpayer Jun 13 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer If you rename the question to "Is abacus like Japanese soroban worth learning at school?" my reply will become more relevant. If anything, Russian-style abacus with 10 beads on a wire directly corresponds to decimal positional system, while soroban has five beads per wire, four in the bottom, one at the top. The top one means fiver. It involves more mental gymnastic than the 10-bead one. It can be fun, but if I were to use abacus to teach a kid positional system I would use a 10-bead abacus. In fact, I did. In 8th grade kids should be doing linear equations, too late for abacus. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 13 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you would like to ask a new question about the pros and cons of abacus and soroban and self-answer that, adding in your own experience or references to the answer? $\endgroup$ – Tommi Brander Jun 14 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ @TommiBrander I think my answer is perfectly appropriate the way it is. The question about the usefulness of soroban as well as about "the companies that run these expensive abacus programs". My answer is (1) soroban may be fun, but don't spend too much time learning how to use mechanical calculator unless you will be using it in real life; (2) 10-bead "counting board" is more appropriate as a tool to reinforce the idea of place value in decimal system compared to soroban; (3) no need to hire third-party companies when one can spend $10 for an abacus and half-an hour to learn how to use it. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 14 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ From matheducators.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer: (1) "What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”." — this is what my answer is providing: viable and cheaper alternative. (2) "Links to external resources are encouraged" — not required, encouraged. If you want every statement confirmed by a reliable source, you should try Wikipedia instead. (3) And yes, I used 10-bead "counting board" as a learning device, not for 8-graders though. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 14 at 19:36
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I took abacus classes when I lived in Japan for several years as a child.

It was interesting because one learned a mechanical way of solving arithmetic problems, but I didn't learn "number sense" which was much more useful later on in my academic career.

I think my experience meshed with Richard Feynman's conclusions in his excellent story Feynman vs. the Abacus.

How did the customer beat the abacus?

The number was 1729.03. I happened to know that a cubic foot contains 1728 cubic inches, so the answer is a tiny bit more than 12. The excess, 1.03 is only one part in nearly 2000, and I had learned in calculus that for small fractions, the cube root's excess is one-third of the number's excess. So all I had to do is find the fraction 1/1728, and multiply by 4 (divide by 3 and multiply by 12). So I was able to pull out a whole lot of digits that way.

A few weeks later, the man came into the cocktail lounge of the hotel I was staying at. He recognized me and came over. "Tell me," he said, "how were you able to do that cube-root problem so fast?"

I started to explain that it was an approximate method, and had to do with the percentage of error. "Suppose you had given me 28. Now the cube root of 27 is 3 ..."

He picks up his abacus: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz— "Oh yes," he says.

I realized something: he doesn't know numbers. With the abacus, you don't have to memorize a lot of arithmetic combinations; all you have to do is to learn to push the little beads up and down. You don't have to memorize 9+7=16; you just know that when you add 9, you push a ten's bead up and pull a one's bead down. So we're slower at basic arithmetic, but we know numbers.

All that being said, I'm glad I learned it, but it's useful now mainly as a parlor trick. I also demonstrate how to multiply with a slide rule! And it was interesting when I lived there to watch shopkeepers sum up checks.

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  • $\begingroup$ "You don't have to memorize 9+7=16" — one does not have to memorize it even if one does not use an abacus. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 13 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Indeed one is not required to memorize common elements in order to do math. You could certainly do everything by counting on your fingers or strings of beads. But there's a significant time tradeoff. Having a fast mental lookup table of the most common calculations makes it possible (with sufficient practice) to compute results of operations up to about four digits nearly as fast as a typical person could punch them into a calculator. Whether that skill is useful is another question, but it's something to keep in mind. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jun 14 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Perkins I do not remember so-called addition facts with sum larger than 10. I have been calculating 9+7 as 9+1+6=10+6 all my life and I do not suffer from loss of efficiency. Memorizing times table makes a bigger effect on productivity, IMO. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Jun 14 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Being able to make tens is the biggest efficiency jump, yes. Followed by knowing all the combinations of addition from 1-9. Beyond that tends to be diminishing returns. Similarly multiplication tables up to about 12 give the biggest benefit, and prime factors are the most useful division operations to know. More helps, but is scarcely worth the effort for most people. My apologies for not understanding what you meant, your original comment sounded like you were one of the "Memorization is Evil" types. :-) $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jun 14 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ +1 to Rusty Core for correcting Richard Feynman! :) $\endgroup$ – Mark Harrison Jun 18 at 19:07
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I'm learning abacus myself now and am really enjoying it. I actually find it relaxing, whilst I usually find arithmetic tiring and frustrating.

I like the physical feel of the beads on my fingers rather than looking at ink on paper. I'm able to understand arithmetic better by watching how the beads move and where they end up rather than just looking at a question then an answer. It's one thing to memorise "8 + 7 = 15", which I never did before, and another to think "what's the best way get those beads to move to get to the answer, as I see the beads as an answer rather than just two numerals.

I've bought a soroban for my child but I'm not paying a fortune for soroban classes. I'll teach him myself, and if he enjoys it we'll see where it leads to.

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