The Great Modern Abacus Debate

June 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Recently, there has been a lot of debate over the use of calculators in the Key Stage 2 SATs exams. With the removal of the calculator paper, some are concerned that this will affect students in later stages of education.

Some may say that the calculator is a relatively recent piece of technology, but in reality we have been using tools to help us make calculations for thousands of years. The abacus is thought to have been used in Oriental lands as long ago as 3000 BC.

Since then, it has been adapted by many cultures and lands, leaving us with the abacus we recognise today. Even the Native Americans used a form of abacus called a Quipu, which was a system of knotted cords. They also used a Yupana to carry out their calculations and researchers have discovered that this was based on the Fibonacci Sequence. Image

The abacus is more than just pretty beads used to show numbers; it can be used for a number of calculations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and even square roots and cube roots. There are a lot of variations, but the most common abacuses that we see today consist of 2 sections of beads in rows. The two sections are 5’s and 1’s and the rows indicate place value, e.g. units, tens, hundreds. So, 623 for instance would have three “1” beads in the units row, two “1” beads in the tens row and in the hundreds row there would be one “5” bead and one “1” bead.


Despite the growth in popularity of pocket calculators, abacuses are still in use in some parts of the world. Merchants and traders in certain parts of Asia and Africa still use an abacus for business. And, China and Japan still teach children in school how to use an abacus. In fact, using a Soroban (Japanese abacus), Japanese children are able to complete calculations as quickly as someone using a calculator . . . sometimes quicker!

So, whatever side of the fence we sit on when it comes to the debate on calculator papers, we can’t deny that calculation devices are a long-standing tradition in human history. And with the development of the scientific calculator, we have opened the way for students to be able to perform all sorts of mathematical functions, including trigonometry and logarithms. The important thing is that we don’t lose the ability to use our brains – there’s something to be said for mental arithmetic!

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