What about Chisanbop -- who's using it?

Chisanbop is a system designed to teach children arithmetic - painlessly. It has been causing commotion in math education circles for several years. One reason for this is that in Chisanbop the student is expected to do his math on his fingers.

That's right. Chisanbop (a registered trademark) is Korean for ''finger calculation method,'' and its supporters claim it's an easy, effective way to teach basic arithmetic functions.

In Chisanbop, the fingers on the right hand each represent ones. The thumb equals 5. The fingers on the left hand represent tens, and the thumb is worth 50. Using all your fingers and thumbs, you can count up to 99.

You record a number by simply touching the appropriate fingers on the table. To add, record the first number on your hands, then count up to the second number. This gives you the sum. If the sum is larger than 99, you must record it on paper. To subtract, just reverse the process.

Hang Young Pai, creator of Chisanbop, claims that by following his rules it is also possible to do subtraction, multiplication, and division. He also says that by using this method students gain a better understanding of these math functions. They learn more easily because using concrete objects--the fingers--helps resolve the abstraction of math concepts.

Chisanbop was presented several years ago at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in San Diego. It created quite a stir. Educators were promised glowing results, but saw very little proof.

Some Korean children demonstrated the method, both there and on television talk shows, and impressed the audiences with their speed and accuracy in solving problems. But the general reaction of educators was skepticism--a wait-and-see attitude.

Since that time Chisanbop has received mixed reviews after being tried in various school systems across the country. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., schools were the first to try it. They are now phasing the system out entirely.

Says an administrator who doesn't want her name used: ''It's just not working out.''

In the Newark, N.J., public schools, where about 25 percent of the students are now being taught Chisanbop, they're planning to broaden the program to make it available in all the schools.

Joanne Harz, basic skills supervisor, finds the system useful with all types of students - from slow learners to gifted children. She says it's an additional tool, providing help for the students who have trouble with conventional math instruction. It's used as a supplemental program in kindergarten through Grade 3 , with about 10 minutes a day spent on drills.

In Woodridge, Ill., the system is used as an enrichment program with gifted children in Grades 1 through 6. Now in its fourth year, the program has been very successful, as it helps reinforce math skills, educators there claim.

The public school system in Shawnee Mission, Kan., tried a pilot program in one of the schools in 1979. At the end of the year it was found that the first-graders could add large numbers easily. But they did not know basic number facts. They could not add numbers in their heads. The program was dropped.

The views of individual educators also vary widely. Paula Platter of Southeastern Oklahoma University in Durant taught the method to grade-school children three years ago, and now teaches a yearly course at the university to train Chisanbop teachers.

She's enthusiastic, claiming her results with the children were ''phenomenal.'' The students did better on standardized math tests than their teachers expected. They began to internalize the math laws by solving the problems on their hands. And she found it a great motivator.

Other teachers said the method gives students a good understanding of place value and the decimal system. Verna Matthews, a second-grade teacher, says it is a great supplement to traditional math instruction. ''No one's afraid of math anymore.''

But there are many others who believe Chisanbop does not live up to its claims. Grace Burton of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington says the system is really modeled on the abacus, and she doesn't believe that is the best method for teaching arithmetic.

''It doesn't teach the basic number facts, only to count faster. Adding and subtracting quickly are only a small part of mathematics,'' she claims. '' There's so much more to learn; it's not worth the time required to learn Chisanbop.''

Dan Knifong of the University of Maryland says the system promised to take the drudgery out of math by eliminating the need to memorize number facts. Yet he argues that as much effort is put into learning finger drills, and that with multiplication and division more effort is required. Further, he argues, it doesn't provide a satisfactory level of math comprehension.

He compares Chisanbop to touch typing. A lot of practice is required to become a quick and accurate typist. But the typist doesn't necessarily understand more about writing.

''The Complete Book of Fingermath,'' by Edwin M. Lieberthal (A&W Visual Library, NY), is written with both students and adults in mind, and shows, through drawings, how fingermath is done. A useful volume for those who don't already know Chisanbop.

Yet the education community continues to test, evaluate, and accept or discard.

How about trying a little Chisanbop yourself? Warm up those fingers. OK, add 158 to 61 quickly. That's left thumb and index finger, and right index finger, then . . . .

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