How Japanese students learn math

Teachers get good results with group work, problem-solving approaches

A group of ninth-grade students are devising a formula for calculating the area of a stretch of winding road, and throughout the 50-minute period they remain intent on their task. They produce several possible solutions and reason them through until the principle behind the challenge is clear. At class's end, some students linger for more problem solving.

It's a typical slice of everyday life at this Japanese public school, run by the Japanese government for families living in the United States. It's also one of many practices that teachers in Paterson, N.J., are taking in, intent on boosting their school's math performance. (See story, left.)

In international tests, Japanese students outperform US students in math skills and concepts. Despite cultural differences, many educators insist that there is much US teachers could learn from how they learn.

"There are a lot of really important ideas out there," says Catherine Lewis, a member of the education department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who studies comparative methods of education. "Many of them come from Japan."

The Japanese work with a national math curriculum, one often described as carefully thought out, tightly woven, and neatly linked from grade level to grade level. It homes in on fewer concepts than US curricula, but helps students more fully absorb these.

But the Japanese edge in math education extends beyond curricular issues. James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA, and James Hiebert, professor of education at the University of Delaware in Newark, studied tapes of eighth-grade math lessons in US, German, and Japanese classrooms that were produced as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in the mid-1990s. They concluded in their book "The Learning Gap," that US and Japanese teachers had markedly different styles. US math classes tend to begin with an explanation by the teacher, followed by the students working on their own at related problems. Japanese teachers generally start by tossing out a problem and requiring students to grapple with it, often in groups. Only after exploring different ways of tackling the problem does the teacher help. The goal is to foster thinking skills and problem-solving abilities.

Ironically, Japan looked to America when, after World War II, it sought to overhaul its education system. Particularly appealing were American educator John Dewey's notions that hands-on experience stimulates understanding.

Some say that Japanese willingness to apply such ideas methodically helps get results Americans often lack the patience to achieve. "Japanese take ideas very seriously," Stigler says. "They feed them into their research and development system. We have a very different tradition."

Many researchers point to California to illustrate the perils of a more superficial approach. Early in the 1990s, the state overhauled its math curriculum to reflect a list of standards being promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It included many practices that work well in Japan. But the result roiled many who found it lacking in rigor. It recently shifted back to basics.

"We have a real penchant for overnight reforms," Hiebert says. "We throw things out if they don't work in a year or two, and it's hard to improve if you do that."

The Paterson teachers are working with the Japanese teachers to learn more about a key ingredient in Japanese teaching: "lesson study." Teachers plan lessons as a team, and observe one another in the classroom. Sometimes a single lesson will be polished over the course of years. Particularly successful lessons are shared on a national basis.

Principal Koichi Tanaka says he likes the idea of sharing good ideas with the US. But he warns that "it might take five years or more," before lesson study is properly understood and fully integrated into the US school. And, he adds, in Japan, teachers are given the time and support required to make lesson study work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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