One of the most interesting sessions I attended at last weeks Associaiton for Psychological Science meeting was titled “Educational Neuroscience in China: Examination of Culture-Specific Learning Tools/Activities.” The session was chaired by Yi Hu of the East China Normal University
Here is a brief description from the program:
“The symposium will focus on the neuroscience studies of long-history learning tools and activities specific to the Chinese culture (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, and mnemonics). Our studies provide evidence for explaining the cognitive processing differences between Chinese and Western cultures in an educational context.”
Here is a more detailed description:
“In Chinese educational context, the long-history learning tools/activities (e.g., abacus, Go play, writing, mnemonic) are now learned and practiced by most children or students with the aim to improve their basic skills and therefore academic performance. There are four presentations in current symposium. The first is on the calculation with abacus and corresponding mental calculation. Before the advent of computer, the Chinese were accustomed to use the tool of abacus, especially in calculating the arithmetical operations in their daily life. The using of abacus and the related mental calculation are supposed to improve the memory abilities and academic mathematic performance. In the paradigms of expert-novice and expertise development, we explored the effects of the using of the tool on cognitive processing and neural activations through the classic experimental tasks (e.g., stroop task) and the brain image techniques (e.g., fMRI, ERP). The second presentation is on the game of Go. It plays by two opponents with the purpose of enclosure of larger space than the opposition. The game is supposed to improve the holistic cognitive processing that is typically associated with the Chinese. Several experiments were then manipulated to examine the holistic processing in playing Go. Furthermore, the hyperscanning technique of NIRS was used to explore two categories of playing activities in Go, namely making a move by oneself and waiting the move by the opponent. The technique allows us to reproduce the competition context capturing the dynamic cognitive processes per se in Go. The third presentation is on the writing system. Chinese and English represent very different writing systems that vary significantly in how graphemic symbols is mapped onto spoken language, yet both writing systems activate similar brain circuits with some variations. Chinese as a logographic writing system represents morphosyllabic information while English as an alphabetic one represents phonemic information. Our research aims to compare universal features in these writing systems and analyze how literacy education changes brain function and anatomy and its implications for reading instruction based on evidence–based strategies. The last presentation is on the mnemonics. Some memorists in China demonstrated the exceptional short-term memory (e.g., Feng Wang, the champion in World Memory Championship 2010 and 2011) or the largest long-term memory (e.g., Chao Lu, the holder of Guiness World Record for reciting 67,890 digits in pi). Although they have reported some mnemonics, the related neural mechanisms remained unknown. We tested their material-specific mnemonics (i.e., imagery, generate stories, method of loci) through the fMRI and ERP. Furthermore, we trained some developing children on the mnemonics and observed the intentionally targeted cognitive processing. In sum, the symposium will discuss the effect of the culture-specific learning tools/activities in China. The corresponding empirical studies provide evidences for explaining the cognitive processing differences between the Chinese and the Westerns in educational context.”
I was struck by the description of Chinese mnemonic systems for memorizing digits. In the two most widely used Western systems (the Major System and the Domonic System) numbers are converted into letters and then memorable words or names are constructed. Since Chinese is character based, strings of numbers are directly converted into words. It seemed to me that the Chinese system would be harder to learn, but, once learned would be faster and more efficient.
As the result of hearing these talks I intend to learn how to use an abacus and play Go.
Below is a promotional video I found for an Indian program that teaches abacus to children. Notice that some of the kids have internalized the abacus and make their calculations mentally.