Return of the abacus: calculator, eat your heart out

April 13, 2010

By Christopher Huber

Hena Matthias, a sixth-grader at Rachel Carson Elementary School, was reluctant to sign up for a special math tutor outside of school in February. She was struggling a little with math in general and needed a boost to find that confidence others had at school.Grace Lynch, a fourth-grader at Rachel Carson Elementary, does some exercises at the end of her one-hour abacus class April 7.  Photo by Christopher Huber
But since she started attending an abacus-based math class for an hour a week in Sammamish, Matthias said she has noticed a change in her basic abilities.
“When you’re asked to do little problems in your head, you can do it much faster,” Matthias said.
Abacus West is a new math tutoring program based in Sammamish that addresses a rising trend in using the ancient abacus more prevalently in mathematics education. Abacus West, aimed at teaching children ages five to 12, is the first program of its kind in Washington, said founder Vinaya Kulkarni, a Sammamish resident. There is one in Vancouver, B.C., the IKOMA Soroban School.
“Parents see a new confidence in their kids they’ve never seen before,” Kulkarni said.
The abacus certainly is not going to edge out the calculator in math class. But the idea is that using an abacus improves students’ concentration and focus and enables them to perform mental math at a higher level. After learning how to use an abacus, they can then visualize it while figuring out problems in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
“The beauty of the abacus is anybody can learn it,” said Kulkarni. And given the current debates flaring about school district math curriculum adoption, “I think people are looking for a math enrichment they can send their kids to.”
Abacus-based math education is nothing new — it’s been used for thousands of years.
The program tends to appeal to visual and tactile learners, and, similar to language or music, is best taught at an early age, Kulkarni said.
“It’s a very visual way of learning,” she said. “It gives kids a better way of thinking and advancing in math.”
Kulkarni provides an intimate, interactive class setting with up to 10 students per teacher. The students work on finger exercises, counting with the beads as fast as they can, as well as doing mental math by visualizing the abacus. At the end of class, the students play “abacus football.” As Kulkarni flashes a card with a problem on it, they quickly answer and pass the ball.
“I find it a little different than regular class,” Matthias said. “When you learn the basics of the abacus, which aren’t that hard, it’s really fun.”
Classes are held at the Plateau Club in Sammamish and Blakely Hall in the Issaquah Highlands. If they stay with it, students progress through 12 10-week sessions, learning first, how to manipulate the beads to do basic math, and eventually, how to do more complex exuasions.
“It’s like a new instrument,” Kulkarni said. “If you practice, you get better at it.”
Grace Lynch, a Carson fourth-grader, also has seen vast improvement in mental math abilities and overall confidence in math class, said her mother, Sybil Lynch. Although just one 10-week session into her abacus training, “Grace’s confidence has skyrocketed. She was very, very self conscious in math,” she said. “Her light bulb hadn’t gone off. I just wanted an option for her where it wasn’t painful for me to get her there (confident).”
Sybil Lynch said Abacus West is different because Grace, like the other students, is excited to go to the hour-long class each week. Grace does her Abacus homework days ahead of time, Lynch said, and because she’s the only one (other than Kulkarni) who knows how to use it, she takes responsibility for learning it.
Students can call Kulkarni whenever they need help, too.
“(Kulkarni) likes that she has a special relationship with them (the students) and that I can’t help them,” said Lynch.
Although many math-tutoring programs exist to help students gain confidence, Kulkarni said she started the program to promote holistic brain development — rather than rote memorization of multiplication tables.
She began researching and learning the abacus in 2008 to be able to teach her own children, but found others could benefit, too. She began offering classes in February.
Dan Phelan, Lake Washington School District’s chief academic officer, acknowledged that the abacus could be effective in improving mental math abilities. But he said plenty of math-tutor programs help students get better, too.
Either way, he said, “We’re always happy when kids are good at math and like it.”
Reporter Christopher Huber can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 242, or
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One Response to “Return of the abacus: calculator, eat your heart out”

  1. Abacus West | Wallyhood on September 14th, 2012 7:01 am

    […] teachers and have taught over 250 kids. They’ve gotten some favorable reviews from Eastside local press and were mentioned in National Geographic Magazine’s September 2010 article, “Abacus […]

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