ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I' m Robert Siegel.
Japan has prided itself on academic achievement. But Japanese schools are facing criticism these days for easing standards. In response, there is new enthusiasm for an ancient tool.
Reporter Lucy Craft visited a classroom and sent us this report.
(Soundbite of children)
LUCY CRAFT: On a Saturday afternoon in a Tokyo suburb, about 20 children have gathered in this pleasantly ramshackle room. Seated on the floor, they are perched over low desks.
Ms. IWAI (Teacher): (Chanting in foreign language)
CRAFT: The chatter comes to an abrupt end, as the kids fixate on the voice of Haruka Iwai. She's a teacher of soroban or abacus.
Ms. IWAI: (Chanting in foreign language)
CRAFT: In the traditional sing-songy chant of an abacus instructor, Iwai rattles off 10 numbers, which are instantly toted up in a flurry of bead-clacking across the room. Sliding counters with thumb and index finger, the children deftly and almost instantly calculate the sum.
(Soundbite of conversation)
CRAFT: But this mathematical performance, impressive as it is to the untutored, is merely the warm-up act for an even more remarkable skill
Silently, a third-grader named Sho Uchida races through a written worksheet of arithmetic problems, without the aid of his abacus. Instead, muttering softly, his fingers dancing across the page, he mimics the motions of calculation as he imagines the beads moving in his head.
Hanaka Iwai, who runs the school with her sister, Haruka, says being able to conjure up and manipulate a mental soroban is a skill known as anzan.
Ms. IWAI: (Through Translator) Anzan enables you to visualize the beads in your head. So even if you don't have a soroban handy, you can literally carry the device in your brain.
CRAFT: The system is so intuitive, teachers say, almost any child can master it in a matter of months. Children are considered soroban-ready as soon as they can count, at around four years old.
Imported from China, abacus use in Japan dates back hundreds of years. Soroban literacy was a prerequisite for many white-collar jobs, as late as 1980, until the arrival of pocket calculators. By 2005, the number of students taking qualifying exams for soroban had shriveled to around 20,000, a 10th of peak levels. The soroban seemed destined for the dust heap.
But in the last few years, the humble abacus has staged an unexpected comeback. Regular abacus classes have been restored at a handful of elementary schools around the country, credited with boosting math scores.
It's precisely because humans today depend so heavily on calculators, says the Abacus Associations' Hiroshi Nakayama, that the soroban is needed now more than ever.
Mr. HIROSHI NAKAYAMA (Managing Director, League of Japan Abacus Associations): (Through Translator) When you do all your figuring on a computer or a calculator, the process of calculating becomes a black box. But with the soroban, number-crunching takes place right before your eyes.
CRAFT: Yet the soroban revival is also based on the belief that it makes kids more confident and better able to recall what they've learned. Partisans say that the act of conjuring up those imaginary beads enhances right-brain development. Some schools have adopted 10-minute soroban drills first thing in the morning, as a mental warm-up for the day.
Empirical evidence that soroban works as a kind of brain training is still thin. But parents and soroban instructors, like Hanaka Iwai, are convinced that the act of total concentration involved in soroban makes kids better at learning, period.
Iwai, who has studied and taught the abacus for 20 years, describes number-crunching as a kind of pleasant, alternate state.
Ms. IWAI: (Through Translator) I'll be working on one problem. And the next thing I know, I've finished five. Soroban really hones your ability to focus. It's a skill which can be applied to any field. You just don't get distracted easily.
CRAFT: The Soroban Association is studying whether grade schools should re-adopt soroban-based classes, and bring back a tool from the days of the samurai.
For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.
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