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A feel for numbers: The changing role of gesture in manipulating the mental representation of an abacus among children at different skill levels

Frontiers in Psychology 9
Cho, P.S.So, W.C. Underwood International College,
Yonsei University,
Songdo, South Korea

Institute of Convergence Science,
Center for Science and Engineering Applications in Social Science,
Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea

Department of Educational Psychology,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong,

Shatin, Hong Kong
2018 Consciousness

Abacus mental arithmetic involves the skilled acquisition of a set of gestures representing mathematical algorithms to properly manipulate an imaginary abacus. The present study examined how the beneficial effect of abacus co-thought gestures varied at different skill and problem difficulty levels. We compared the mental arithmetic performance of 6- to 8-year-old beginning (N = 57), intermediate (N = 65), and advanced (N = 54) learners under three conditions: a physical abacus, hands-free (spontaneous gesture) mental arithmetic, and hands-restricted mental arithmetic. We adopted a mixed-subject design, with level of difficulty and skill level as the within-subject independent variables and condition as the between-subject independent variable.

Our results showed a clear contrast in calculation performance and gesture accuracy among learners at different skill levels. Learners first mastered how to calculate using a physical abacus and later benefitted from using abacus gestures to aid mental arithmetic. Hand movement and gesture accuracy indicated that the beneficial effect of gestures may be related to motor learning. Beginners were proficient with a physical abacus, but performed poorly and had low gesture accuracy during mental arithmetic.

Intermediates relied on gestures to do mental arithmetic and had accurate hand movements, but performed more poorly when restricted from gesturing. Advanced learners could perform mental arithmetic with accurate gestures and scored just as well without gesturing. These findings suggest that for intermediate and advanced learners, motor-spatial representation through abacus co-thought gestures may complement visual-spatial representation of a mental abacus to reduce working memory load.

The article was published in: Frontiers in Psychology 9: 1267.

Full article

This work was supported (in part) by the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.