Category Archives: Abacus

Abacus Instruction in Vancouver

Following my recent post on abacus education in Japan, I feel like I have to report on my daughters’ (6 and 9 years old) encounter with the abacus here in Vancouver. They have been attending an abacus school here since September, going once a week. A very good friend of ours mentioned that her daughters were going to abacus and given my past experience with abacus schools in Japan, we were eager to try this out for our girls, especially the older one who is very keen on math.

They’ve taken to it like fish to water and go with great anticipation.

When I told my good friend in Japan who is quite involved in abacus education that the girls were going, he sent two “one-touch” abacus for the girls so that they’re all equipped now.

The school that they attend was recently at the centre of a story in the Globe & Mail.

Some of the things that I find fascinating largely based on my research on juku in Japan:

  • most of the students at the location that our girls attend are Japanese or Japanese-Canadian
  • they range in age from 4 to their teens with a concentration in the early primary grades (just as in Japan)
  • the classroom  works just like juku classrooms that I’ve seen so often by now: There’s a head teacher who circulates and is assisted by a couple of younger teachers. One of the main activities that they undertake is まるつけ, i.e. the circling of correct answers, usually in red. When students missed a problem, they do it over until it is circled in red. This circling/correction is sometimes an occasion for instruction or explanation.
  • Instruction is always one-on-one (either by the main teacher or one of the assistants) allowing for a mixed classroom of beginners and more advanced students.
  • students progress on the basis of worksheets that require increasingly more difficult calculations, beginning with plus and minus, first single-digit numbers, then moving on to larger and more numbers to calculate.
  • some of the socialization roles that juku take on in Japan are also an element in the abacus juku. For example, some of the Japanese parents will remind their children to greet the teacher properly, to thank her and say good bye at the end of the lesson.

Interestingly, our teacher is the daughter of an abacus teacher. When I was doing research on juku in post-disaster Tohoku last week and mentioned that my girls were in abacus juku, some questions led to the observation that my interlocutor knows (of) our abacus teacher’s father. Small world.

An abacus juku that I visited in Sendai was a reminder of how astonishing abacus skills can be. Students there were doing something called “フラッシュ穴算”, i.e. flash calculations in their head. This is computer based and the program is pre-set to different levels of difficulty in the computations. A student will sit down and the program will flash a succession of numbers on the screen that the student adds, subtracts, multiplies or divides. For the younger students a series of four single-digit numbers might flash for a second each, while older students will be shown series of 10 3-digit numbers  over a short time span. Amazing!

In her abacus article for the Globe and Mail, education reporter Kate Hammer picked up quite nicely on the amazing calculations, but also on the almost physical learning that the manipulation of beads seems to foster. I have found this a fascinating aspect of instruction in juku for some time and it is something that the correspondent for The Economist also picked up on in describing the rhythmic chanting of chemical elements at a juku he visited.


Abacus Education

The first time I encountered a juku was when I returned with my 上智大学学生寮 roommate (I spent my 3rd year in university on exchange at Sophia) to his home in Shimane Prefecture. Shinji’s parents ran an abacus juku. I thought to myself, “An abacus juku? In 1991? In Japan, where the pocket calculator was invented in the 1960s? How bizzare!”

Over the years, I have visited the 瀬川塾 many times and have been fascinated and impressed by the success that abacus education can have with some kids. Children who enjoy computation (I was one of those myself) can get a real kick out of the speed with which the abacus lets them perform calculations, especially once they graduate to methods where they’re only visualizing the abacus not actually using it.

My former roommate is now involved in a larger-scale effort to introduce the abacus more formally into math education, not as a calculator, but rather as one more way to introduce elementary school students to different math concepts. See Shinji’s blog for more information on SSKClub and their efforts.