MEXICO CITY – The mathematical system used by the Maya civilization, due to its tactile and symbolic characteristics, fosters the development of analytical and abstraction abilities essential for human beings, physicist Fernando Magaña, who is promoting the teaching of these methods in Mexico, told EFE.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) professor said that using the Maya system of memorization eases the way to understanding, pure analysis and abstraction.
“Abstract thinking facilitates reasoning, it helps us make decisions, develop ways of thinking in flow diagrams, program things in terms of cause and effect,” he said, adding that it gave an important “push” to human development, allowing them to “blast off” as a species.
From 2010-2015, the academic trained teachers from indigenous communities in Maya math as part of a program undertaken by the Public Education Secretariat of the southeastern state of Yucatan.
And he still teaches these methods informally, by teachers’ request, both in Yucatan and in other parts of the country.
Indigenous children gather in the middle of the jungle to hear Magaña teach, and he shows them how to operate “the Maya abacus,” a table that the kids draw on the ground or by using a piece of old newsprint.
They fill the table with three kinds of “pieces” with concrete meaning and, using them, they are able to complete mathematical operations by moving the pieces among different columns.
The dot (the value of which is 1) is represented by a shirt button, the line (representing 5) by a bean and the snail (representing zero) is easily represented with a small stone.
The main advantage is that it does not require anyone to learn multiplication tables to be able to perform operations with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and even square roots.
It involves observing and interpreting what is observed, touching things, moving the objects around on the table to obtain results and, along the way, reasoning about what is being done.
The system “is more tactile, more concrete, but at the same time ... we get to abstract thinking,” Magaña said.
The UNAM professor said that at age 4 children can learn to add and subtract within just one hour, to multiply in another hour and, in three or four hours, they are ready to undertake division.
And, “within a span of two or three months, a 4-year-old child can already represent numbers from one to 10,000,” a sharp contrast with the Mexican educational system, which prohibits children from learning anything beyond the number 99 in preschool, and never teaches them addition or subtraction.
The Maya math system is a base-20 system, in contrast to the base-10 system that we use today.