Follow along as Marc Ashton, CEO of Foundation For Blind Children, learns how to use an abacus


From Teaching Tips Tuesday


Alex: Hey everybody! And welcome back to another episode of Teaching Tips Tuesday, we have a very special episode for you today starring the one and only Marc Ashton, the CEO for Foundation For Blind Children, how are you doing today Marc?

Marc: I’m doing great today Alex, thanks for having me.

Alex: Absolutely, thank you so much for being on, uh, can you tell the people at home a little bit about how you got connected with FBC?

Marc: Well, almost 27 years ago my son Max was born and when he was diagnosed with Leber’s, and, uh, we–the Foundation For Blind Children showed up on our doorstep the next day to start early intervention and eventually, he went to preschool here, went to public school, and now he’s working for a U.S. Senator. So, it’s been a great ride and that’s how I became a board member, and then eventually the CEO.

Alex: Well, we are lucky and honored to have you as the head of our ship.

Marc: [nods and smiles] Thank you, thank you.

Alex: Absolutely, so a few weeks ago, we did, uh, Teaching Tips Tuesday with Leanne Grillet about the abacus and then Marc reached out to me saying that, after all of these years he has never been taught how to use an abacus.

Marc: [nods in agreement]

Alex: So I thought what a perfect opportunity to give a little tutorial for the folks at home. Do you have your abacus? [pulls out abacus]

Marc: [holds up abacus] I have my abacus.

Alex: Okay, we’re going to be doing this mirrored, so it’s gonna be a little bit on the tricky side, but I feel good about it.

Marc: [lightly chuckles]

Alex: So, yeah, take a moment to look at your abacus normally.

Marc: Okay. [Marc holds the abacus to display towards the audience]

Alex: [Alex holds the abacus to face towards himself] We have–it’s covered in beads, that is our first obvious thing that jumps out; these beads represent the different place values of numbers. So, all the way on the right edge of our abacus is the ones column. If you were to slide up a single bead you have now set the number one [slides bead up abacus and continues to do so for beads 2-4]. We can then continue through two, three, four, but now–we’re all out of ones beads. So what we do is we slide these back down [slides all beads back down] and then slide down our five’s beads. [slides fifth bead down]

Marc: [Follows along on abacus] So right–?

Alex: Basic–So yup [in response to Marc] This is worth five, and it’s worth five of whatever place value you’re in, so here it’s five, here it’s fifty, five hundred, five thousand, all the way up to five trillion. [drags finger along the “five” beads] So you can do some

Marc: [Nods head in amazement] Oh!

Alex: So you can do some serious math on an abacus–all the way up to the trillions column, but I don’t think we’re gonna be getting to that today Marc so don’t worry.

Marc: [lightly laughs] Thank you, thank you, baby steps.

Alex: Basically, to set a number, it’s all about if it’s touching that bar in the middle, so for the number eight. Let’s see if I can do this backwards. [grunts and attempts to display a value of 8 through the abacus facing towards the audience] Oh nice, I have my five’s bead and three one’s beads.

Marc: [Attempts to follow along] 

Alex: Uh, so you have set the number–

Marc: Okay, thank you.

Alex: 35–there we go! Okay, so here’s a test of your understanding Marc, without any explanation of the tens column can you set the number 64?

Marc: [Whispers as he guides himself through it] 

Alex: Beautiful! 64, that’s it!

Marc: Is that right?

Alex: Yes, exactly! So you have–

Marc: Wow, okay.

Alex: 50, 10, is 60. So, it’s a very logical, understandable tool, especially to somebody that already has number sense; but the abacus is a beautiful tool for teaching that early number sense to students of visual impairments because it is all entirely tactile. Uh, one of my favorite parts about it, looks like you already have a pretty crisp abacus, even if you shake it around to let your beads move.

Marc: [Shakes abacus] No, uh, this is brand new I just got out of our library.

Alex: [laughs] Oh, nice, straight from the AIRT.

Marc: Yeah! [nods head and laughs]

Alex: That’s nice, Chris Kramer abacus, so yeah, it stays plated, it does not move until you intentionally engage with it.

Marc: Yeah–

Alex: Alright!

Marc: Behind here’s a cushioned felt in the back, yeah.

Alex: Let’s try to do some simple addition, let’s start with three plus seven. Now Marc, could we do that in any order that we want?

Marc: Don’t know teacher!

Alex: Is seven plus three the same as three plus seven?

Marc: Yes.

Alex: Yes, because addition is commutative, so what number do you want to start with–the three or the seven?

Marc: Oh, so I can start with, uh, five, seven–

Alex: Seven, okay, and we’re going to use what’s called the Counting Method, so a lot of people make the mistake at this stage. So instead, the next speed they’d slide up they’d say eight, but then you don’t know how many more numbers so the first number you slide up you’re going to say one.

Marc: [Follows Alex] One.

Alex: And then two.

Marc: Two.

Alex: But here we are, we’re all out of ones beads and we still have one more to go. We clear our entire ones column, slide down a tens bead–or slide up a tens bead, I’m sorry, and say three.

Marc: Three.

Alex: You missed one bead.

Marc: Oh. [fixes bead]

Alex: There you go, so that is one of the most important steps when you’re teaching a student how to use an abacus. How to use that synthesis over the bar, I like to consider this is–

Marc: I’m sorry, this is only for five, not ten?

Alex: So, how do you mean?

Marc: Okay, so I’m just trying to understand this. So that number right now means eleven. No, it means ten.

Alex: Just ten,

Marc: Yeah.

Alex: This would be eleven. [displays a value of eleven on the abacus]

Marc: Ohhh, thank you. Okay. [nods head in understanding] 

Alex: Okay, does that make a little more sense?

Marc: That does.

Alex: All right, let’s take it the other direction, let’s do some subtraction. Let’s do sixteen minus eight.

Marc: [Subtracts sixteen minus eight on the abacus] Ten?

Alex: There you go, beautifully, yeah. Nice and clean, yes you do. All right, so now we’re going to count down starting at one, what is the first step you think we should take?

Marc: One.

Alex: One–perfect.

Marc: It’s sixteen minus what? I’m sorry.

Alex: Eight.

Marc: Okay, one. Am I gonna take five away?

Alex: You got it.

Marc: Five.

Alex: So there’s one more thing you need to do. [points at abacus] Slide up your ones beads–all.

Marc: All of them, why all of them?

Alex: Okay, so, we were just at–functionally–the number fifteen. We had taken away one from sixteen. When you’re counting down you wouldn’t go from ten all the way–or fifteen to ten, you would go from fifteen to fourteen.

Marc: Ohhh, okay, so one bead at a time type of thing. Okay.

Alex: So that’s two. The we go three, four, five, six–we’re all out of ones beads. So think about this with your number sense, we’re at ten, we need to go to nine.

Marc: [Talks himself through it]

Alex: There you go! Beautiful, that’s it.

Marc: Wow, braille was much easier to learn.

Alex: Oh, I could not disagree with you more on that one Marc [laughs] All right–

Marc: I had the opportunity Alex, when Max was a child to learn Braille along with him, and Max just didn’t bring home an abacus. He just left it at school so I never got this experience, but I did get the experience of learning braille as he learned it, and, um obviously, I learned it by vision, but, um, this is a whole new world. Thank you.

Alex: Absolutely! So we’re at five, we still have three more numbers to move.

Marc: Wait, we haven’t gotten to?

Alex: Does that look like the correct answer of sixteen minus eight?

Marc: That’s eight, right, Oh my God. So we should go five, six, seven, eight.

Alex: What, D=did we mess it up? Oh I think I got distracted in my counting. Okay, we, we digressed in the middle and that–

Marc: I’m sorry–

Alex: [Stammers] Doing this in the mirror was much harder than I thought it was going to be. All right, now I have sixteen. I take away one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Marc: Okay.

Alex: So my answer is of course, eight.

Marc: Wow. Five plus three, that’s, that’s the eight.

Alex: Mhm, and eventually, this becomes a very motoric process. It’s not, it’s not–you’re not just thinking about the math of it, you’re thinking about the steps. Alright, the final challenge on the abacus for you today Marc. You can put it down, I’m gonna put mine down because we’re going to do this problem completely tactile. So we’re going to make unbroken eye contact throughout this next problem. Okay, do you wanna do an addition or subtraction?

Marc: Addition for me if you don’t mind

Alex: Sure, absolutely. Let’s do a two digit by a two digit; let’s do thirty-six plus fourteen.

Marc: Okay [laughs] Okay, thirty-six, so I just put in a thirty-six plus fourteen, so I have to go, uh, one, two, three, four. [glances down at abacus] I cheated, I looked down! Thirty-six plus fourteen, uh, I’m trying to do it by digits here…. [murmurs]

Alex: Don’t look down! It’s cheating, let’s see what you got!

[Both Alex and Marc hold up the abaci]

Marc: No? (The abaci are different values)

Alex: We have arrived at thirty-six plus fourteen, thirty-six plus four is forty, plus ten is fifty. So I–

Marc: [Marc realizes his mistake and fixes it] You’re right! Oh man.

Alex: So I gave you a really hard one, I gave you two pieces of synthesis you had to do, you had to cross over your nines bar into the tenths place, and you had to convert um, forty into a fifty. So I did give you a pretty hard one to do.

Marc: I just, I wanna apologize to all of your viewers, I am not a good student, and uh, I hope that they took something from this other than the fact that I can’t count, or, uh, that I’m not a good student, but, uh I hope they learned something from it today.

Alex: Absolutely, hopefully we showed everybody that the abacus–even though you did have some trouble in that last problem–is a relatively quick-to-understand device that does have a lot of practical, very mathematical, value.

Marc: Well Alex, it was-it was great, and um, it goes to show that, um, tools like this are important, and it’s uh, for our students all over the country and so I’m glad you were able to show me a little bit parent.

Alex: Now Marc, there’s one more question that nobody can escape from on Teaching Tips Tuesday, and that is what is your favorite part of your job?

Marc: My favorite part of my job is telling our story, telling the story that our kids can do anything, and, u, it’s a powerful story. And um–all over the country, all over the world, um, I just want parents to know and students to know they can do anything, and with simple tools like this [holds up the abacus] they can do math like everybody else, we have engineers, we have doctors, we have lobbyists, we have attorneys, you name it, our kids are doing it. And it’s possible. And as parents, I hope that they can all understand that they can–their kids, their child–do anything.

Alex: Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much Marc for being on this wonderful episode of Teaching Tips Tuesday, I had a very fun time; and thank you so much to everybody at home, giving us another watch, we hope to see you next week!