SCMP Saturday, September 22, 2001

Arithmetic as easy as 1, 2, 3 . . .

POLLY HUI

Twenty pairs of eyes shone with effort as the children's fingers danced on the beads of their abacus in tune to their tutor's incantation of numbers.
The figures rattled out by the second, each greeted with a telltale clacking, for 10 minutes until the counting machines were laid aside. The pupils closed their eyes and began in unison to pluck at the air as if at ghostly violin strings.
It is a scene with the feel of a century-old learning regimen, pre-calculator, pre-creativity. But this is Wan Chai in 2001: welcome to the William Wu Training Centre. After three years of study, children at the centre can now give a near-instant answer to the addition of 150 double-digit numbers read aloud. Nor do they have higher than average IQs, they are just normal eight- to 12-year-olds.
The abacus "trick" echoes what many maths experts emphasise: the importance of allowing pupils to understand the meaning of numbers before they move on to calculation. "Very often, students look at the digits only as symbols. But the beads on the abacus can help them visualise the meaning of numbers and improve their conceptual thinking. It will also help them to calculate faster," said William Wu Fat, the training centre's founder, who has been studying the role of the abacus in maths for nearly 13 years.
Students normally take at least three months to familiarise themselves with the tool. After that, they graduate to calculating by moving their fingers only, as if there was an invisible abacus in front of them. The final stage is learning to calculate without movement, with an abacus in their minds only.
At the start, meanwhile, just using both hands to work on the abacus could stimulate the development of both sides of a child's brain, said Mr Wu. "While the left brain is responsible for calculations, the right brain is projected with the image of the abacus," he said. "It is a misconception that good scientists only need a well developed left brain. The truth is that they will never have any original ideas if they do not possess an equally well developed right brain to give them the creativity."
Among the formal academic community, however, mathematicians either have little knowledge of the use of the abacus or remain suspicious of its true value. Dr Chiang Yik-man, assistant professor of mathematics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said that as a type of speed calculation, the process could side-step many basic mathematical concepts. But there was little evidence to suggest that abacus skills resulted in the ability to do better in mathematics. "We should treat the abacus as only a calculation tool and avoid mystifying its use," he said.
The abacus originated in China during the Ming Dynasty, and was later introduced to Japan and some East Asian countries. For centuries it was present wherever one long number met another, but its time seemed up with the advent of the electronic calculator.
Now, though, the beads may be back. Over the last few years, parents in Hong Kong and neighbouring countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia have increasingly been enrolling children as young as four in abacus training.
There are now about 40 centres operating in Hong Kong, with sometimes as many as 100 children packed into a class. The Education Department confirmed that as abacus training was regarded as an extra-curricular activity, such centres did not fall under its wing or need registering.
Elsewhere, the abacus is gaining a more formal foothold in maths teaching. Simon Wu Sing, the elder brother of Wu Fat, who has been studying and teaching the abacus for more than a decade, is now working closely with the Thai Government to introduce its use to 200 primary schools. He has received similar invitations from Belgium and Canada. "The West has began to realise that a total reliance on calculators and computers for doing calculations is harmful to students' mental development," he said.
Wu Fat is planning to enter the achievement of one of his students into the Guinness Book of Records - a Taiwanese Primary Six pupil who added 100 single-digit numbers in 18.98 seconds last year.
Although the abacus can only be used to work on additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions, Mr Wu stressed that its role in helping children make accurate and quick calculations was not as important as improving their concentration and patience.
"The children are very anxious to get the right answer. So every time, they try their best to make sure that they can hear every single number I read out, because their answer will be wrong even if it is just one number they have missed," he said.
Maria Yuen Kong Lai-yung, whose 10-year-old son has been going to Mr Wu's class for five years, said she found her son much more organised and patient after taking up abacus training. "He is also doing better than his classmates in mathematics. But grades are not as important as the confidence he now has built up in his own ability," she said.
However, Dr Chiang is not impressed by such training. "Many activities, such as playing musical instruments, can improve concentration," he said.
The positive impact of abacus calculation on students' learning attitudes has been so highly regarded in some parts of Japan, however, that the majority of primary school children there are taking classes as many as seven times a week, said Mr Wu.
The question of whether the abacus could play a more significant role in local schools depended on the availability of professional teachers, he said. "Apart from having good abacus calculation skills, teachers also have to know a lot about child psychological development so that they can properly monitor the progress of individual students," he said.
Where to find abacus training: Simon Wu Abacus Centre Limited: 2789 2993. William Wu Training Centre: 2574 2887. Hong Kong Abacus Association: 27320 5260.