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Thursday, August 16, 2007

They Don't Know Numbers

"He doesn't know numbers; he only knows beads." -Matthew Broderick as Richard Feynman, Infinity

It seems the Arab world is attempting to take a step backward in order to go forward. They are adopting an adding technology that goes back millenia.

Mental arithmetic is a form of calculation that does not involve the use of any physical or external gadgets, such as calculators or computers. The skill is developed early through the use of the abacus. Eventually children are trained to calculate large numbers in seconds with accuracy and speed.

Though the popular image of an abacus is correctly attributed to the Chinese, the actual pebble replacement system was used first in Babylon. It still is the fastest pre-electronic way to do simple arithmetic, beating even today's standard algorithm. Though, the last time I checked, it is both a physical and external gadget. The above program, known as Universal Concept of Mental Arithmetic System (UCMAS,) allegedly uses the abacus to improve mental arithmetic. For the life of me, I don't see how the abacus could possible be useful for this. It only requires students to be able to count as high as the base of their numbering system (i.e. ten) and then to understand the concept of place value. Sure it's really fast by analog standards, but if it's speed you're looking for, go digital and electronic. If you want to teach mental math, teach some form of pencil/paper algorithm and provide memory drills.

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