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Making sense of maths

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Making sense of maths

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Maths is certainly a mental challenge but it can also be fun, and ultimately rewarding. We look at schools in the US, Japan and China and compare their methods of teaching maths. Usually videos are seen as tools for entertainment and games, but they can also have a powerful educational impact.

In Santa Monica, California, they are experimenting with a new approach to teaching maths. The website began five years ago when Eric Marcos made a short video to explain a maths problem to one of his students.

He explained: “Next day in school other kids heard about the video. They wanted to get a copy of that video or a video made for them, and the next thing you know, I’m putting these videos up in different places, websites and all over the place, and then a kid, she came to me and said, ‘Mr Marcos, can I make a video?’”

So now maths students make explanatory videos every day after school. The students have discovered that the best way to learn is by teaching others. Today, children all over the world are logging on to watch videos made by Eric Marcos and his pupils.

Everybody starts out using their fingers to count. But there are some tools like the traditional abacus, or soroban as they call it in Japan, that have helped develop problem solving ability.

Counting things like people or money is often done by machines these days. We all have calculators and many of us no longer bother to do even simple calculations in our heads. But Taro Okamoto can remember not only the numbers that appear on the screen. He can also do mental calculations involving three, four and even five and six-digit numbers. What Taro does is called anzan. He uses his hands to remember the visual representation of the numbers after practicing on a centuries old calculating device called a soroban, which is a descendant of the Roman abacus.

Tomoe Fujimoto said: “Visualisation and memory are not thinking about numbers, you are imagining these beans and you calculate looking at them. So, we’re calculating with this other side of the brain, which is not the one we normally use.”

The value of the soroban is that using it required full integration of all the brain’s major processes, providing a holistic and comprehensive workout for the brain.

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The programme for international student assessment found that maths students in Shanghai outscored their counterparts in other countries. What makes them so highly competitive?

The Jing An Experimental School took part in the most recent examinations and 40 of its students showed the world that when it comes to maths, they are in a class of their own. They study for hours every day, and are able to solve problems which are beyond others of the same age.

There is also a logical reason why the Chinese are so good at maths. For them, every number has a meaning and not just a name. So 20 in Mandarin is “2 times 10” and 58 is “5 times 10 plus 8”. So calculation and numbers are part of their language and their lives.

The Shanghai High School offers extra maths classes to the brightest students and the competition is fierce to be chosen to compete at international Maths Olympiads. This competition has helped them become the best in the world.

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