By Rodolfo Cortes
Is it possible that there are existing aspects of schooling that can boost children’s skills at basic math? If so, how can educators use these tools to improve children’s achievement? A recent study led by Dr. David Barner at the University of California, San Diego, and Dr. Michael Frank at Stanford University sought answers to these types of questions.
The researchers decided to focus on the abacus, a device that allows its user to manipulate small objects to represent exact quantities. While use of the abacus has been associated with great mathematical skill in adults, no study had previously examined the possibility that training children to use the abacus may help them achieve in mathematics. Moreover, the researchers were not just interested in use of the physical abacus, but also in a technique known as “mental abacus” in which the individual envisions manipulating the abacus but does not actually do so.
To begin to examine this important question, Barner and Frank went to India – where many schools include the abacus in their mathematics classes. Beginning in second grade, around 200 children were randomly assigned to either receive standard training in mathematics that did not involve an abacus or training that emphasized use of mental abacus techniques. Both students received around three hours of instruction during the school year.
One year later, the researchers returned to the school to test the children on arithmetic tasks involving age-appropriate addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The results showed that children who received training on the abacus scored, on average, 5% higher than the children who received standard training. One year later, the gap had increased to 8%, favoring the group who had trained with the abacus.
The researchers concluded that “mental abacus—a system rooted in a centuries-old technology for arithmetic and accounting—affords some children a significant advantage in arithmetic calculation compared with additional hours of standard math training.”
This is an important finding because it suggests that simple changes in how teachers instruct could dramatically boost achievement in math. It would be fascinating for future research in the United States to examined whether this method (or some tweak to it) can help all children reach their potential in mathematics.
Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.