I am English teacher, and I love reading and writing, but prior to college, math was my favorite subject. I tend to be a practical, logical person and math just made sense. I’ve attributed my comfort with math to bowling. I started keeping score when I was very young (yes, long before automatic scorers), and I think it gave me a mathematical kickstart. I needed to add, subtract and multiply in my head, so I did. And, of course, the more you do something, the easier it gets. I had no dependence on a calculator.
It has frustrated me as a teacher to see so many students struggle with basic calculations. And this brings me to another thing I love about Japan … the soroban. A soroban is a Japanese abacus, and they still use them in school here in Japan. The students learn early, they practice, they compete. They deal with numbers in the millions and billions and do it in seconds. It is an amazing sight.
Today I had the pleasure of visiting a soroban contest. The soroban organization holds an event to bring together elementary students from Japanese schools and American schools to compete, play games, and socialize. Not all students from the American schools learn soroban. I wish they did. I wish students in the States did too. It is such a pleasure to see students interested, focused, invested, and successful with a math activity. Really, it’s not just math. The students listen to the problems, do the calculations, and record their answers all in a second or two. The students here are mostly listening to Japanese people read the problems. So, not only do they have to hear the problem, but they have to understand the numbers read with an accent. How many times do we tell students what page to turn to and have to repeat it three or four times (and maybe have it written on the board too). Well, these problems are read once, they’re read quickly, and the students do the calculations in mere seconds. They LISTEN and are focused.
This event gives the American students the opportunity to interact with their Japanese peers. It teaches them Japanese culture and a little piece of history. And I think it might also help instill a comfort with numbers and mathematical computations.