Kumon mathematics fills gap in education system

Parents of school-aged children might consider giving their children an enduring holiday gift this year: enrollment in a supplemental mathematics program.

While it may be costly, the results of practicing mathematics daily is rewarding to both students and parents. Children gain self-esteem and confidence; parents feel a sense of relief and pride in their children’s accomplishment.

Three popular supplemental programs are Singapore, Saxon and Kumon. Many home-school practitioners use the first two, and Kumon, which involves daily practice and some tutoring, is popular with parents who feel schools might be letting their kids down.

Dan Kimura, Ph.D., senior professor of computer science and engineering, opened the first Kumon center in St. Louis in 1984 in large part because of his disappointment in the math education 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 of Moriguchi, Japan, in 1958 by the late Toru Kumon, a math teacher who invented it to help his sons, Kumon math has more than 4 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.

Students are tested then begin at a comfortable learning level, working with paper and pencil on a series of calculations devised to reinforce what they learn. They master a learning phase at their own pace, pass a timed test and go on to another level. They do problems at home daily for 15 to 30 minutes and meet weekly with 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, Kimura said.

Kimura said the reason 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,” Kimura said.

“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,” Kimura said.

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 said that there are two stages in acquiring knowledge: thinking and knowing. For example, 3 2 = 5. Students trained in Kumon math or 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 “3 2 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,” Kimura said. “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.”