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Understanding Mental Arithmetic

By Ronnie Chong                 December 2000

Excellence is like the proverbial pot of gold. The search for excellent skill is endless, yet little do we realize that all of us are excellent in our own ways irrespective of what other might say or deny. All of us are equipped with an amazing powerful learning brain, which enables us to learn easily, efficiently and effectively. The concept of mental arithmetic has been developed on the understanding of how our brain works. Studies have shown that the left side of out brain is inclined to logical reasoning and systematic processes. Left-brainers are often identified in careers such as accountants, engineers or scientists, because these people understand logic better than the so-called right-brainers. Right-brainers are credited with producing some of the more creative aspects like arts, music, gut feeling, intuition and emotion. It is sharp thinking and positive attitudes that would prove to be the critical difference – the difference that gives us the special edge.

Most students do not realize their learning potentials and in fact find learning a struggle, difficult, slow, boring and ineffective. The difference between the smart students and the weak students lies in the smart students having discovered the secret or keys to unlocking the potential of the learning brain, while the weak students do not. It isn’t an issue of the intelligence but rather the application of knowing how to earn in a brain-compatible manner which produces good learning results. One’s ability to learn is dependent on his skill and not on his colour or creed. The one determinant factor, which leads to poor learning performance, is learners not knowing how to learn or lacking of an effective system of learning. A strong desire to learn and hard work does not necessary guarantee good outcomes – it is a matter of smart learning that works. The study of abacus and mental arithmetic focuses on critical learning skills such as concentration, memory and application techniques.

The simple yet constructive abacus is a powerful learning aid to introduce figures to the minds of young beginners. Figure recognition must be achieved before the introduction of mathematical ‘equations’ to the individual. This would then effectively alleviate the phobia of figures, which more often than not, has proved to be a mental block to future progress in learning arithmetic. Learning of the abacus and mental arithmetic will prepare students to cope comfortably with mathematics, beginning from early childhood education. By giving students a solid understanding of the fundamentals of figures and its correlation to mathematical ‘equation’, and possibly allowing them to work above their school level, children will feel confident when faced with mathematics set at school. The skills needed to perform computation on the abacus are hierarchical in nature beginning with addition, subtraction thereafter followed by multiplication and division. Proper finger technique is paramount in achieving proficiency on the usage of abacus. Having this in mind, constant practice is indispensable in achieving virtuosity and high calculating speed on the abacus. It is imperative that students need to be adept with the abacus whilst recognizing and comprehending figure system to boost self-confidence and proficiency in mental arithmetic.

On most occasions, the generally public would be amazed by the speed of calculation with the abacus in comparison to the modern electronic calculators. However, to achieve mastery in mental arithmetic, one must look beyond dexterity on the abacus and progress to conceptualize the methodology of the ‘virtual’ abacus in his or her mind. Whilst exploiting on the powers of visualization, students’ memory faculty will be enhanced and they would inevitably capitalize on their analytical skill to solve mathematical ‘equations’.

We should realise that the single most important determinant of academic success is achievement orientation i.e. the inner drive to excel. As a parent, you are your child’s first and most powerful influence. In this respect, positive motivation plays an important part which even strong desire to learn does not guarantee success. It is undisputable that children make the fastest progress when they are supported, encouraged and motivated in their everyday life.

Ideally, mental arithmetic teachers must be someone who loves working with children and capable of imparting mental arithmetic skill to the young minds. Patience and understanding, rather than paper qualification, are the virtues most valued in this profession. Teachers must be able to assist students in transforming negative thoughts pertaining to one’s intelligence and abilities into positive beliefs that support learning and optimize utilization of the student’s potential. Research has shown that students with self-doubt rarely accomplish desirable results. In the words of a philosopher, an individual’s potential is a direct derivative of one’s self-esteem. With this in mind, learning institution should put forth more effort to enhance the self-esteem of both students and teachers alike.

The task of education should not solely be the responsibility of the respective government of learning centres. Private organizations should play an active role and invest in public education to unlock and exploit intellectual capital which will largely shape our nation’s future. Indeed, the formation of PAMA is praiseworthy as it leverages on the synergy of the abilities of all its members from various countries to develop a proactive approach to learning and increasing the powers of mental calculation. In promoting the enhancement of abacus and mental arithmetic, PAMA seeks to continually organize competitions on a global scale, in which requirements will be set according to international abacus standards. The inaugural PAMA competition was held in Taiwan last year with a modest participation from 5 countries. This year, Malaysia will host the 2nd annual competition organized by IMA Enterprise Sdn Bhd, a representative of PAMA. With an approximate 900 contestants from 8 different countries, the 2nd PAMA competition is the biggest-ever mental arithmetic competition to be held anywhere in the world, both in terms of contestants and countries participation. As part of PAMA ongoing program, the 3rd annual competition will be held in Thailand in the year of 2001.

Although the benefits of abacus and mental arithmetic has progressively gained global recognition, more concerted efforts needs to be put forth to promote the unique advantage of ‘virtual’ abacus in relation to mental arithmetic as a valuable mathematical tool for a technological age.

Note: The 16th PAMA competition will be held in USA in year 2015.