Parents of school-aged children might want to think of giving their children an enduring holiday gift this year: enrollment in a supplemental mathematics program. While it can cost anywhere from $80 to $110 a month, the results of practicing mathematics nearly daily is rewarding to both students and parents. In fact, parents might be even bigger recipients of this gift than their children. While their children gain self-esteem and confidence, the parents very likely will feel a sense of relief and pride in their children’s accomplishment.
Singapore, Saxon and Kumon are three popular such programs. Many home-school practitioners use the first two, and Kumon, which involves daily practice and some tutoring, is popular with parents who feel their schools might be letting them down.
Dan Kimura, Ph.D., a senior professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, opened St. Louis’ first Kumon center in 1984, in large part because of his disappointment in the math education that his sons were getting. Mathematics is a major foundation of computer science, and Kimura, whose specialty is software programming, took action.
Begun in Kimura’s hometown, Moriguchi, Japan, in 1958 by the late Toru Kumon, a math teacher who invented it to help his sons, Kumon math has more than four million students enrolled worldwide in 43 countries, nearly 180,000 in the United States. The method stresses repetition, speed, accuracy, individual pace, hard work and goal orientation in teaching mathematics.
Finding their level, then advancing
Students begin at a comfortable learning level, having been tested to determine that level, working with paper and pencil on series of calculations devised to reinforce what they learn; they master a learning phase at their own pace, pass a timed test and go onto another level. They do their problems at home daily for 15 to 30 minutes and meet weekly with their Kumon instructors for a half hour to 45 minutes. Gradually, after much positive reinforcement, Kumon practitioners gain self-confidence and, if they stick with the program, their mathematics progress invariably improves greatly, said Kimura.
Kimura said the reason that many parents are seeking supplemental help for their children in mathematics is the American method of teaching and the contents taught.
“The philosophy in American schools is a bottom-up approach, where the basic assumption is that every child has the innate ability to learn, the purpose of education is to help kids grow, that the direction they take is rooted in their DNA and that cannot be altered, and that teachers and parents should facilitate this growth process,” said Kimura. “There is a sense that you can’t force students to learn, that it stifles creativity. The best a teacher can do is to suggest that students learn certain things, but students shouldn’t be forced.”
What’s missing, Kimura said, is the concept of training.
“The Kumon method is based on training, and is a top-down approach that stresses achieving goals,” he said. “The process of practice and training is very painful. Top-class athletes and musicians will tell you that, too. Kids may not like it, but kids don’t see the goals. They do, however, feel the satisfaction of achieving a goal. Parents are the immediate beneficiaries of Kumon math. They see the goals, and they see the progress.”
Kimura runs two suburban Kumon math centers, one in a well-to-do suburb that services 350 students. A newer one in a blue-collar suburb, where schools have lost accreditation from No Child Left Behind, has about 60 students.
Thinking vs. knowing
Kimura said that there are two stages in acquiring knowledge: thinking and knowing. For example, 3+2=5. Students trained in Kumon math or exposed to the training concept in another context, once they are in the knowing stage, know that automatically. In contrast, he said the way that the simple calculation is taught in schools today is to attach icons, such as apples, to the numbers so that students supposedly grasp the concept.
“From the beginning, American students are exposed to the applications of mathematics,” Kimura said. “In my humble opinion, that is not teaching mathematics, rather the applications of mathematics. The philosophy in Kumon is that you have to learn mathematics before applying it.”
The transition to the knowing stage is speed, Kimura said, calling it perhaps the most vital tenet of the method.
“The Kumon method stresses the syntax of mathematics, not the semantics, which is opposite of the way mathematics has been taught in America for several decades,” said Kimura. “In the schools today, learning revolves around student-centered curricula: the teacher creates a social environment that stresses education, citizenship and self-esteem, which are, indeed, worthy learning components. From this environment, the student is expected to construct his own body of knowledge. But this is like teaching a child to play tennis by telling him to create his own method. It de-emphasizes the concept of training.
“If you do not know how to read, write and compute, how can you construct your own body of knowledge? More and more parents and teachers are beginning to see that learning cannot be achieved without training.”
With Kumon, the basics become as automatic as a piano player practicing the scales, laying the foundation for higher level reasoning skills.
Kumon parents marvel over improved attention spans, mathematics grades, test-taking skills and overall attitude of their children. It’s not just for remedial students, either. Kimura says nearly 45 percent of his Kumon students are performing well beyond their grade levels. “It’s not uncommon for elementary school children to advance into algebra and trigonometry with the Kumon method,” he said.
Some even take it to prepare for the SAT and ACT tests.