PA Coalition for World Class Math

                                              Fuzzy Math in Malta (1/18/2012)

Malta Today

Thursday 19 January 2012 - 07:42

Mathematics made difficult… or is it?

Why does the ‘new’ Abacus system make simple addition a much lengthier process for students? Here is the recent tweaking of the mathematics syllabus that has left parents baffled.

Children are no longer being taught the traditionally 'efficient' way to calculate maths problems in primary schools, but the 'new' Abacus system has led parents and teachers to grumble about the lengthened process for pupils to be taught how to work out a simple addition sum.

But is it a bad thing that children today are being taught alternative methods to solve maths problems rather than opting for the speedier 'traditional' method?

According to University of Malta professor Josef Lauri, teachers and parents have encountered difficulties with the Abacus series of textbooks because the new system was complicating mathematics for children, specifically by refusing to teach children "efficient and quick methods" to carry out mathematical calculations.

Writing in the Sunday press, Prof. Lauri said children were deliberately held back from being taught the 'the most efficient way' to calculate maths problems, and were rather being taught 'rigid step-by-step' routines to solve their problems.

The result: some children, 'especially the weaker ones', were struggling with lengthened methods of calculations, while their parents insist they are made to feel like fools for not understanding the method.

An example of how a simple addition works with Abacus goes like this: 'old school' types will add 14 and 12 together to make 26 by adding the last numbers first and moving to the first numbers (so it's 4 plus 2 equals 6, and 1 plus 1 equals 2, put together are 26).

In the new system, the calculation must be carried out by splitting the numbers in multiples of ten, just like an abacus: so 14 plus 12 becomes 14 plus 10 equals 24, and 24 plus 2 equals 26. Labyrinthine and inefficient, some will say.

One parent who spoke to MaltaToday says that when she first encountered the Abacus textbooks, her first thought was that they did not make sense.

"You start thinking that you do not understand the problems because of the way they have to be calculated. The system is linear, so all calculations are done in a straight line rather than having the numbers underneath each other," this mother said.

By way of example, the woman said that when her youngest started school and was given a grid with a box ranging from one to 100, calculations were done in tens, either adding or subtracting boxes on the grid.

"If you wanted to work a problem out, you had to find the number on this grid then move one box down to deduct ten or move a box up to add ten. It got very complicated when it came to multiplication and division," the mother said.

"I find it strange that the government had only just changed the books, only to change it again to Abacus system. I mean, it is more complicated and even the British reverted back to the old system."

Anne Tabone, headmistress of St Edward's College Junior School, said that it was not as rigid a system as most critics believe, because students were actually being given more tools to work with. "It gives a good mental start to students. Our teachers use Abacus Evolve textbooks and provide students with various possible methods to calculate problems," Tabone said.

Her school teaches children a variety of methods to calculate a problem, including the traditional method known to parents.

"The children are then given the option to choose the method they feel most comfortable using when calculating problems. This means, children are not restricted by the traditional method," Tabone said.

But the Abacus system may not be holding children back from efficient calculation strategies as parents may assume.

"Two out of my three boys were taught the Abacus method but parents were prepared beforehand. The school held an information session to teach the parents on how to use the books," another mother, whose two boys are aged 12 and 10, said.

According to her, it involves more mental math calculation and uses logic to work problems out: "I can give my youngest son any sum and he does not have to work it out on paper and does not use the traditional borrowing methods. He works it all out mentally."

Strangely, schools then revert back to the traditional way of mathematical calculation once children move up to Year 6 or secondary school, and in some cases also provide children with calculators in Form 1.

Any mental calculative capabilities they may have gained through the Abacus system could find itself withering away as children 'dumb down' with so-called efficient methods of calculation.