Math Mastery the Japanese Way

The Kumon method stresses building speed and accuracy via drills, not conceptualization

THREE months ago third-grader Jacob Broder-Fingert only knew how to do basic addition. Now, he's multiplying and dividing two- and three-digit numbers. He spends at least 20 minutes every day doing worksheets of math equations. Twice a week, he attends an after-school program in this suburb west of Boston where he fills in more worksheets. Not only that, he loves doing it. Jacob is using a Japanese program called Kumon Math to bolster his math skills. ``In school, we're way behind,'' Jacob says, ``We're only on subtraction.''

Its origin in Japan automatically infuses Kumon Math with an air of respectability. Japan consistently shows up at the top of multinational math assessments, while the United States has idled at or near the bottom of such rankings since 1967.

The Kumon Math method is now being used by 1.7 million students in 18 countries. In 1954, Toru Kumon, a Japanese math teacher, developed the program to improve his young son's math skills. Using worksheets Mr. Kumon created, his son was able to learn all high-school level mathematics before finishing elementary school.

In 1958, Kumon began teaching his system to local parents and sharing worksheets with their children. Today, the Kumon method includes 4,000 worksheets ranging from preschool to college level.

About 500 Kumon Math centers are now scattered around the United States. Instructors receive intensive training in Kumon methods and participate in an ongoing training program. A franchise fee of $300 is required to open a center, plus $150 for training and materials. Kumon students pay a tuition fee of $60 a month and an enrollment fee of $30.

Although Kumon was intended to be used outside of the classroom, about 200 schools in the US - largely in the South and Southwest - have now incorporated Kumon into their math curriculum, at an annual cost of about $45 per student.

Stressing repetition, the program focuses on building speed and accuracy in calculation. Students must score 100 percent on sets of worksheets within a prescribed time period - about 15 to 30 minutes - before advancing to the next level.

``This is like the old-fashioned, drill-and-practice math, but the kids love it,'' says Cindy Broder, Jacob's mother.

``I like it 'cause I get to learn a lot,'' says Jacob.

``It's fun trying to beat your time,'' says his sister, Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, who is in fifth grade and also a Kumon student.

Jacob has always done well at math, Ms. Broder says. ``He was bored out of his mind in school and soaked up Kumon like a sponge,'' she says. On the other hand, Sarabeth was an average math student. But, their mother says, they are both benefiting from Kumon. ``Jacob now grabs the bill at restaurants and figures the tip before anyone else can.''

After being absent from school for several days, Sarabeth showed up for a math test she didn't even know was to be given. She took it anyway and was the only student in the class to get a perfect score.

Kumon promotes itself as an ``individualized self-learning'' program. Before starting, students are given a diagnostic test and then assigned a starting point below their achievement level.

``The starting point is very crucial for the children,'' says Weiming (Peter) Tu, a training coordinator with Kumon Educational Institute in Fort Lee, N.J., one of five regional offices in the US. By placing students several levels below their ability, they gain confidence quickly, Mr. Tu says. In addition, they don't compete with one another - just themselves.

The Kumon instructors and parents work together to monitor students' work at home and in class sessions, which are held twice a week.

THESE classes are not the ordinary sort, however. The teacher doesn't stand in front of students demonstrating mathematical principles and examples. Instead, students drop by for 20 to 30 minutes of timed work in their booklets. They bring the work they've done at home and leave with more worksheets. The instructor monitors student progress and assesses when pupils are ready to move to the next level.

``Kumon not only helps children in math,'' Tu says. ``It builds self-confidence and good study habits.''

Susan Lau, who has three children enrolled at the Kumon center here in Chestnut Hill, Mass., says it has helped her children develop increased concentration. ``It puts them in a better position than their classmates,'' she says.

But since technological advances brought calculators and computers into the equation, many people argue that the focus of mathematics education should shift away from basic mechanics.

``The premium is now put on thinking, and understanding, and conceptualization, and visualization rather than rote memory,'' says Shirley Hill, professor of education and mathematics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She warns that it can be counterproductive to concentrate solely on drill-and-practice techniques in math eduation. ``It's not where the demands will be later,'' she says.

Dr. Hill suggests that students should be working together in groups to solve problems that are not done by routine rule or formula. ``The method of sitting at the seat doing paper-and-pencil practice simply doesn't bear any relation to real-world activities,'' she says. ``Students should be attacking problems much the same way people do in the real world.''

Eugene Gover, a professor of mathematics at Northeastern University in Boston, has a fifth-grade daughter studying Kumon. He views it as an ``enrichment program'' that can be a healthy adjunct to the school curriculum.

``It's like doing scales on the piano,'' says Professor Gover. ``It's important, but an overemphasis on drill without concept is not beneficial.''

Hill suggests that Japanese superiority in mathematics may be rooted in social factors that foster motivation. ``The attention to effort rather than just ability'' is an important aspect of the Japanese system, she says.

Kumon students like Brian Wolfe say they'd take Kumon over math class at school any day. ``It's much better than going to school and learning 3 plus 8,'' says Brian, a third-grader who does sixth-grade math at Kumon. ``In Kumon,'' he says, ``you keep repeating it and you know it. At school, they explain it too much.''

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