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Christopher Martin


Counting on Fingers

Don’t underestimate the simple tools and techniques

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 13:03

My youngest son entered first grade this year with great excitement. As a high-functioning autistic, his obsession from an early age has been numbers and letters. He memorizes license plates at a glance, can count to the millions (and break down the digits), and tell you how many minutes he has left until his bedtime at 18:00 (he prefers to use military time). However, after a couple months of first grade I noticed he was struggling to perform simple subtraction calculations that I know he is capable of. Baffled, I showed him how to easily visualize the numbers using his fingers, and that’s when he replied, “We aren’t allowed to use our fingers.”

Come again?

Counting on our fingers is a tried-and-true, almost instinctual, example of visualizing work. We have these 10 digits, and they can represent anything we want. I still use my fingers as “bookmarks” during mental tasks, representing everything from tens to simply having a visual reminder of a number that I need to recall while performing another task. That’s because I’m a visual learner, like my son, and like millions of others; we use visual tools to help us solve problems.

A research paper out of Stanford University backs this up, and yet my son’s school sees it as a “trick” that doesn’t help them learn or retain knowledge. Instead, students in my son’s class are presented with sheets of numbers that have small circles along the lines of each letter, called contact points. Counting the contact points is meant to teach the children “how much” each number represents. In time, the thought is that the kids will simply memorize how many contact points are on each number. Take a look at the image below to see what I’m talking about.

Things move along nicely until around the number five, where the placements of the points starts to become a little… improvised. By number six, the points themselves become circled, with the outer circle representing another “point” to count. Notice number seven has three points that count as two, and one that doesn’t. As my son began his math lessons, each sheet of math problems had the numbers presented in this format, and as soon as they stopped including the points, he was lost. Despite his ability to memorize number sequences at a glance, he was struggling to recall where the points belonged on the higher numbers during basic math problems. To help him grasp the subtraction problems, I held up eight digits on my hands, and then took two away. He immediately understood and the task he was presented with “clicked;” from there he did the rest of the entire sheet simply by visualizing his own hands in front of him. He didn’t even need to hold them up.

I don’t want to make this article a criticism of modern teaching methods; after all, I am a staunch supporter of the common core method of teaching math because I’ve seen it work wonders for my older son. My point is that children learn in certain ways, and there is no blanket method that is going to work for them all. This is one of the most important lessons teachers learn, and writing off a simple visual aid like counting on fingers from the very beginning means children are losing a valuable tool that can help them quickly understand what is happening to the numbers during early learning.

While considering the value of counting on our fingers, I recalled many instances in my youth where I would see my dad writing on his palm with a ballpoint pen. He would write down everything from phone numbers, ideas, names, and most often, tasks he needed to do shortly, but couldn’t get to right then. Knowing he was prone to forget those brief thoughts that come and go, he had found a simple solution that always worked for him. He called it his Palm Pilot, a joke I stole well into my twenties before I realized how outdated it was. As you could probably guess, his desktop monitor was also a safe haven for Post-It notes.

Early into my days as a writer in the entertainment industry I would evolve the Post-It note technique to include a color system, where the color and placement of the note would instantly convey certain information to me. Years later I would come to realize that the process I created was a sort of makeshift kanban board. Here at Quality Digest, I use the color technique on a virtual Google Calendar to know at a glance which ad materials are not ready for publication vs. which are.

This line of thinking launched me down the path of visual tools and aids. As technology progresses, we continue to find cheaper, faster, and more efficient ways to simplify our work; some replace older techniques, some combine multiple processes into one, and some simply reorganize our work to be easier to grasp. But sometimes the simple solutions will always be worth holding on to, and can oftentimes be overlooked or disregarded for multiple reasons, such as being seen as too archaic or basic. This is despite the fact that many of the techniques we know today, like kanban boards, andon systems, shadow boards, and the Ohno circle, to name a few, are all just evolutions of simple ideas and tools.

To wrap up my soapbox defending finger counting, I wanted to call out some other simple tools and techniques that the Quality Digest office puts to use that help everyday work, but could also be overlooked:

Write it down

If there is one common tool that is used in the Quality Digest office by nearly every employee, it’s this one. Despite being a digital publication that takes advantage of nearly every new technology we can get our hands on (virtual meetings, cloud-based collaboration, live events streamed from any location), we haven't forgotten how useful the older tools are, either. Any time I take a new task to our editor in chief, Dirk Dusharme, he instantly writes it down so he doesn’t forget. Our publisher, Mike Richman, documents his entire day on a new sheet of paper. Ryan Day, when doing our newsletter layout, drafts the issue out by simple line items on a piece of scrap paper, with marks indicating if he is still waiting on somebody else for something (never throw a good piece of paper in the trash if Ryan is around). As for me, I like to write things down simply because the act of doing so helps commit it to memory—sometimes on my Palm Pilot. Thanks, Dad!

Long live the Post-It

In the QD office I counted 17 individual Post-It notes, one of which is on my monitor and contains every ad size the Quality Digest newsletter offers. This is information I am unlikely to ever forget or need to reference at this point, but that’s only because the note has been in the same location for six years and I’ve looked at it every day. Other favorite examples include a list of often-used alt codes that our editors live by, the key-code to get into the bathroom clear across the building posted on the door that exits our offices, as well as the HVAC company’s phone number posted right next to the thermostat.

Visual reminders

One of my favorite ways to remember something is to simply associate it with something else. If I have a unique task that I need to remember to do later in the day, simply putting something “out of place” is an effective way to constantly be reminded about it. For example, take a Post-It note (it can even be blank) and stick it somewhere you’re sure to see it, but where it might not belong. On a door, for example; you’ll see it as you pass by to do other things and constantly be reminded about it. At home, I like to leave an empty laundry basket in an annoying place (like the hallway) to remind me that I need to switch the laundry over.

Lastly, after countless summer days where the windows would be left open well after the air conditioner had kicked in here at the QD offices, we came up with an andon-inspired solution to help remind us. Check it out below:

Let me know in the comments section below what simple solutions, tools, techniques, and ideas you’ve employed in your daily life, work or otherwise.


About The Author

Christopher Martin’s picture

Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is an account manager at Quality Digest and a freelance journalist in his nonexistent spare time. With roots in covering the entertainment industry, he has expanded his reporting to include the ever-growing and ever-important role of quality management in everyday life.  


Great article Chris

Visualisation is so important. Use of fingers in counting is vital until no longer required!  PS Too many hoops to jump through to post a reply!