Human vs. Machine

THUMBS UP: Each of Lebanon's 12 contestants won one of the top three posts in the prestigious PAMA competition, which was held in San Francisco at the beginning of 2016.

Twelve Lebanese children compute faster than calculators

By Mostapha Raad

In an era when calculators and smart devices have become the most reliable tools to get fast results—slowing our minds in the process due to lack of motivation and exercise—hope springs with children who can solve the most complicated mathematical problems in a split of a second.

Those children have turned into human calculators themselves, processing data faster than a machine. This, of course, was the result of hours of training, and a reliance on an ancient tool from the Far East.
Recently, a delegation of 12 Lebanese children managed to beat over 500 children from 26 countries participating at the 15th Pan Pacific Abacus and Mental Arithmetic (PAMA) competition. PAMA is the world’s most prestigious mathematical competition, held in San Francisco in the United States between December 29, 2015, and January 1, 2016.

The results were surprising as no one expected the youngest participants from a tiny underdeveloped Mediterranean country to beat the world’s top nations.
Lebanon’s team members were handpicked from 60 finalists out of a total of 1000 participants who took part in a national contest held last May.

Ten-year-old Ahmad Farhat, who secured the first place in the international contest, was able to solve mathematical problems containing multiple equations at remarkable speed.
Farhat, who has been affiliated with a special learning program over the past year and a half, told Newsweek Middle East that the competition was “tough in terms of the size of the equations which required a great deal of concentration in a tightly-allotted time of 13 minutes.”

“I was not afraid to compete with children from other countries because I was sure that the skills which I have acquired in the classroom would entitle me to nail the first place and that is what happened,” Farhat said with confidence.

Six-year-old Rami Abdul Majid is another young Lebanese genius who can solve complicated math problems in 30 seconds, according to his mother Micheline Khoury.
She told Newsweek Middle East that Rami was able to compute equations in half the time allocated by the competition.

What is this special program?
The program is of Japanese origin, which aims to develop the brains of children whose ages range between four years to 15 years. It is one of the leading educational programs that are applied in more than 40 countries through 56,000 institutions, and is an effective educational tool that helps millions of children worldwide develop their mental capacity from an early stage.

How it All Began:
In 2003, architect Hadi Hamza was a mathematics teacher at a Lebanese school. He was required to provide a new means for his students to help them with their math skills. After exploring the Internet, Hamza found that “mental calculation” is the most effective way to teach math in developed countries, something which did not exist in the Arab world.

Back then, the school where Hamza taught was unable to finance the project, but Hamza personally undertook the challenge and managed to implement it by the end of 2007, after he traveled to several East Asian countries to specialize in the science of this program.
Hamza is now the regional director of a special program that enhances the students’ brain power.

The Soroban
A soroban is an ancient abacus tool which has been used for centuries to enhance mental arithmetic capacity.
The soroban was devised in China and was later exported to Japan in the 14th century. The Chinese soroban is internationally known as the abacus.

There are many mental-training programs that depend on the soroban tool, which contains beads for calculation. Each bead corresponds to a certain number.

The soroban consist of an odd number of columns or bars, usually 13 columns. Each group of beads is separated by a calculation bar, and the beads are set as follows:

  •  The upper part contains a single bead called the (go-dama) and the value of each bead is 5.
  • The lower section of each column has four beads called the ichi-dama, where the value of one bead is one.

The Calculator Vs. the Soroban
Despite the popularity of the calculator, the soroban is largely used in a number of Japanese institutions and successive Japanese governments continue to support this teaching technique.

As a challenge, a contest was held in Tokyo on November 12, 1946, between Japan’s Kiyoshi Matsuzaki who used the soroban, and Thomas Nathan Wood, a U.S. Army soldier using an electric calculator.
The main criteria to score points was based on speed and accuracy in all four basic arithmetic operations: Addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. The result was that the soroban scored 4 points in sharp contrast to the single point earned through the calculator.

Japan’s daily, the Nippon Times’s headline the next day was “Civilization… dies.” Other newspapers described the soroban as a tool that achieved a decisive victory leading to the decline of the age of machines.

Special Learning Program:
The program which the young Lebanese geniuses underwent contains multiple levels for children aged 5 till 15 as such:

  • Twelve levels for older students (starting from the fourth elementary class and up).
  • Sixteen levels for the youth (first, second and third elementary classes).
  • Twenty levels of kindergarten students.

The technique they underwent also stimulates the development of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. It helps activate and motivate the functions of the left side of the brain that includes analysis and understanding of logic and mathematics, language, words and sense of challenge. As for the brain’s right side, the program enhances qualities such as creativity and imagination, holistic thinking, as well as music and vision.

Hamza points out that with time and after a period of training, the reliance on the soroban gradually diminishes, and the children start relying on a mental image of the tool while solving mathematical equations. This skill is called kinesthetic, which is an instructional method that uses visual memory for the development of sensory skills, given the fact that children between four and 14 years of age have a wide imagination.

The educator adds that a child, no matter which level s/he reaches, remain in need of the soroban at times to increase their speed and performance in solving mathematical problems.

An Absent Ministry of Education
Calls for supporting mental arithmetic programs in Lebanon have fallen on the deaf ears at the Lebanese Ministry of Education, according to Hamza.

“In 2014, I told an audience at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, where representatives from the Ministry of Education were among the crowd, that the ACMAS program management will donate all its curricula and expertise to help add the program to the Lebanese official educational curriculum,” said Hamza, who is yet to receive an answer from any official side.

For his part, Farhat, who wants to enter the faculty of medicine in seven years, asked the Lebanese government to consider the students’ best interest.
Khoury, as a mother, also hopes that the Lebanese government would sponsor such educational initiatives.

Young Champions
Children who won the first place were Rami Abdul Majid and Ahmad Farhat.
Second place winners were Waleed Abdul Majeed, Fatima Hamdani, Charbel Modawwar, Abbas Mustafa, Rabih Bou Dergham and Bilal Akkari.
Third place winners of Ossaid Sheikh, Wajih Franjieh, Ahmed Daouk, and Jana Berro.


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