The Soroban Experience
by Yannic Piché
I became acquainted with the Japanese abacus approximately a year ago. I immediately wanted to know more about this calculation method relying on mental activity rather than electronic means. It was not until six months ago that I had my first contact with it though. I had long been interested in numbers even though I was never very exceptional at mathematics. During those six months I have been practising, my idea about soroban has changed a lot.
I was, at first, very impressed with the sorobanfs simple way of calculating complex figures. I found it incredible that results could be achieved through moving little beads. I found it even more incredible that some people could do mental calculations (an-zan) through visualisation of a soroban frame. With time, I acquired basic skills, and what was puzzling at first slowly became more natural. But even now, friends of mine who are not acquainted with soroban are very often mystified by the concept of an-zan.
During my first steps as a soroban student, I thought that it had to be a great way to develop mental capacities. Just like running is a good exercise for the body, I imagined that soroban had to be a great exercise for the mind. This is probably part of the reason why I took up soroban. The movement of beads also seemed to be a great way to directly and concretely relate to mathematical concepts and numbers, just like kids learning the first notions of numbers and quantities as a consequence of piling up little blocks.
Slowly, I realised that the soroban skills were to be gained through hard work. But the more I practised, the more I had the impression I was falling in a routine of purely mechanical movements where my intellect was merely used. I felt a little disappointed as I was expecting the practice of soroban to be much more of a mental discipline. I then realised that the original purpose behind the use of soroban was not one of intellectual training.
Without knowing much about the historical background of soroban, it seems only logical to think that this calculation method was created out of a need for a practical solution. As the saying goes: gNecessity is the mother of inventionh. Soroban, therefore, appeared as a tool-solution whose practical and ultimate objective is speed in obtaining accurate mathematical results. The way to best master this tool is through regular and repeated practice. In this pragmatic perspective, the use of the intellect is counter-productive as it slows down the process of getting to the answer; where thinking is involved, time is lost. The repetition required in the practice has for fundamental objective to eliminate any time spent thinking.
This is exactly what I feel when I am in the middle of performing soroban calculations. With concentration, the movement of my fingers is fast and natural. Numbers seen on a piece of paper trigger reflexes seemingly without the interference of the intellect. It is a direct link between the numbers and my fingers: a reflex that can only be acquired through long hours of training.
With calculations becoming more natural, something seemed to elude the process. Something grew missing. I did not feel I was learning anymore, but rather tuning a fine skill. I remember struggling to comprehend the logic of basic soroban concepts during my first lessons. I now feel that this is when I learned the most, when I most experienced soroban.
Soon after, I remember being told how to use the soroban, what order to follow in moving the beads, even how to hold my pencil over the soroban frame during calculations. It seemed I was sometimes asked not to try to understand the logic behind but just do it. I would have liked more freedom. I would have liked to discover a little more by myself. I would have liked more time to experiment. Following the rules quickly provided me with tangible results (which I was very happy with), but a bit of the experience had been lost. From this point, soroban had become a skill acquisition process, not a learning adventure anymore.
From the experience I have in learning how to operate a soroban, I feel that the way it is taught is too systematic and not enough experimental. Soroban appeared as a practical tool but the needs it could once fulfil are now better handled with computers and electronic calculators which can do the job faster and with much less efforts. Considering that, I think soroban would reach far better educational payoffs in the modern society if the balance was changed a little more toward experimenting.
I suggest that the main objective of soroban education be less practical and more creative. An approach that involves more thinking and experimenting for the student to discover how the soroban can be used to get results. This is not easy but it can certainly be achieved with a bit of help and guidance from the teacher. The learning process might take a little longer in the beginning but it would surely provide the student with a better grasp of the concepts behind soroban calculations.
As a concrete example, I suggest not saying anything about the order used in moving beads at first and see how students naturally come up with their own sequence. I really believe that the official order is the most efficient one. But challenging what came up naturally, comparing it with the established one, and then explaining why it is more efficient would truly provide an environment propitious to learning.
But even though the practice of soroban is not as much of a mental activity as I thought it would be, I still consider that it brings something very special to me. The level of concentration and the movement of the fingers remind me a lot of the years I spent practising the violin. I never became a very good player, but the hours I spent practising were great moments of mental peacefulness. The joy of seeing something taking shape before my very own eyes was also profound. The exact same thing happens with soroban. I gain a lot from a few moments of deep concentration in which everything is forgotten. It is mentally very relaxing. This intense activity helps me put the reality back into perspective sometimes. The joy of feeling improvement also provides me with a strong incentive to keep going.
As a positive antithesis to the lack of freedom and creativity, the experience I had provided me with a close insight into the Japanese education style. This helped me better understand the Japanese culture and the Japanese people. Soroban is in this sense truly representative of the Japanese culture.
After six months, this is where I stand. I feel I am far from having discovered all the potential of soroban, be it practical or educational. I have yet to gain mental calculation (an-zan) skills. I intend to keep practising soroban as long as possible and I have no doubts that my opinion will keep evolving as I get more into this discipline. What drove me to start practising soroban was curiosity; the desire to experiment and truly understand will never leave me. I really hope for a bright future for the soroban discipline where this need for experimenting would really be satisfied.