SOLSC #26: Soroban

Slice of LifeI 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 20140326-221357.jpgcompete.  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.20140326-221438.jpg

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.




15 thoughts on “SOLSC #26: Soroban

  1. Kim K

    This sounds amazing! I always struggled to get my little third graders comfortable with numbers. For most kids there is always a thread of discomfort.

    1. readerlee Post author

      You’re right – so many kids seem to have a thread of discomfort. It would be great if we had the cure for that. If it were reading, we’d find the right book and maybe add some audio. What do we do for reluctant mathematicians?

  2. scanloe

    How fun! I too had a math interest before I turned to English…doing taxes was what made me good at math. I also had amazing math teachers.

    1. readerlee Post author

      Actually, I think I had amazing math teachers too. Probably wasn’t just the bowling since my brother bowled and he did not fare as well in math class as I did. Of course, I was also just better at playing school than he was.

  3. arjeha

    You taught me about something I didn’t know existed. It amazes and saddens me to see people, and I include adults, who can’t do simple math problems without some sort of aid…I’m thinking grocery clerks who can’t figure out how much change to give unless the display tells them.

  4. tsudmeier

    What an amazing experience! I’ve never even heard of a soroban. Math was always my favorite subject in school too. I would find myself calculating the strangest things in my head- I still do. And I was always the score keeper in bowling- maybe we should bring bowling into the classroom!

    1. readerlee Post author

      I have thought the same thing many times – if only we bowled more often! You can imagine my disappointment when i coached my high school team and none of them (even the kids who had been bowling for years) knew how to keep score. I had to ask the center to turn the automatic scoring off and make them keep their own scores. I think it was a bit painful for some of them.

  5. Julie Johnson

    Now I am very curious and I want to know more about soroban for my students. Maybe it would help them with basic math. I’m going to look into it. It sounds very cool!


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