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Teaching quality, not lesson quantity, may be key to Japan’s top math marks

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Pop question — no Googling: How many of Japan’s Nobel laureates were awarded medals for their work in physics?

The answer: 10, or nearly half of the total. You could deduce from this that Japan is good at physics. Furthermore, you could deduce that Japan is good at math, which is, arguably, the bedrock of physics. And math is something Japan does very well.

If you wanted to create an arbitrary division of nations, you could start with division — long division and short division, and multiplication. And fractions, algebra and geometry: some of the stuff that = math. At the top of the pile would be a cluster of East Asian nations, such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan — countries that repeatedly score high in international rankings. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the class lie Israel, Hungary and, notably, the United States. As much as math itself is a puzzle, so too is the reason behind why Japan, along with other Asian countries, continually outperforms countries in the West in math.

Since 2000 the OECD club of developed nations has been tracking and testing 15-year-olds in dozens of countries in math, reading and science every three years in what are known as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. Japan has never dropped out of the top 10 in math. In the last round of tests, administered in 2012, Japan was placed second in mathematic performance and first in both reading and science amongst the OECD countries.

This summer, American journalist Elizabeth Green wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine titled “Why do Americans stink at math?” It could just as easily have been headlined “What can Japan teach America about teaching math?” since much of the article was given over to the experiences of a Japanese math teacher, Akihiko Takahashi, who trained and taught in Tokyo before moving to Chicago in the 1990s, ostensibly to continue teaching math. His other motive was to continue his research into the pioneering work of a group of math educators in America he had first encountered as a novice teacher in Japan.

Green’s essay was a primer for her book “Building a Better Teacher,” published in August. In the book, Green outlines how after transitioning to America, Takahashi was alarmed to observe that students on the whole were being subjected to a stifling form of math that most readers will probably be familiar with: “I, We, You,” a ritualistic series of steps in which the teacher dictates a problem to the students, the class works together on similar problems, and finally the students work through more of the same problems. Japan, Green says, had traded “I, We, You” for “You, Y’all, We,” in which the process is altered: Students begin with solving a specific problem, then work in peer groups and finally altogether.

The other idea Green hit upon in her explanation of why math teaching in Japan may be more effective is jugyōkenkyū, in which teachers are routinely observed in order to help hone their craft. Observation lessons are standard practice in schools in Japan; however, this is not universally the case elsewhere, where teachers tend to view the classroom as their domain, off limits to prying eyes.

The focus of Green’s book is American education policy and practice, and while it explains some of the differences in teaching between Japan and the U.S., superficially and otherwise, it still does not get to the root of why, on the whole, Japan excels at math. Is it the teaching methodology that differs or the attitude to learning? Or is it how much is spent — in time and money — on education, publicly and privately?

To find out, I went back to class. First, I brushed up on statistics.

Students in Japan spend nearly 235 minutes a week learning math, according to Miki Tadakazu, an education analyst with the OECD, only about 20 minutes more than the OECD average.

In PISA’s 2012 questionnaire, Japanese 15-year-olds reported spending an average of just over half an hour a week in a commercial after-school learning environment — read juku — which is in line with the OECD average. In fact, the Japanese polled came in below the OECD average in time spent on all other forms of after-school work, whether it was teacher-set homework or study assisted by a home tutor, family member or computer.

And one more statistic before class finishes: Japan spends less on education than most OECD countries, allocating it less than 4 percent of its GDP. So, if quantity is not the key to Japan’s math success, could it be quality?


In researching this article, I attended a mixture of private and public schools — a private elementary school and three public junior high schools — to observe math classes and interview math teachers.

While waiting in the cafeteria of Ritsumeikan Primary School in Kyoto, third-graders were busy wiping down the tables. A few students pushed their cloths towards me, more in curiosity than in an effort to clean. I asked one boy, in English, what his favorite subject was.

“Math,” he replied immediately.

I wanted to laugh: Was this an omen or was he a plant? But 50 minutes later, I could see why.

All the classrooms at Ritsumeikan Primary School are open; the wall where the door should be is missing, so if one class was to erupt in noise, it would cause a disturbance in all classes. At Oike Junior High School, a public school in downtown Kyoto, it was slightly similar: All teachers kept their doors open during their lessons. The idea, I think, is to magnify disturbances, or “acting up” as it was called in my time, but at both schools the only noise came in the form of excitement — excitement for math.

At Ritsumeikan, Kunito Ito, a pleasant coach-like teacher, started his class with the customary aisatsu (greetings) and followed this with a problem he had put up on the board — that day they were tackling solving equations with multiple fractions — instructing his fifth-graders to tackle it. So far, so predictable.

But then it got interesting. The first student to finish shot a hand up. Ito walked over, glanced at the problem and circled it, to signal it was correct. The student was then up and out of his seat.

Another hand shot up. But this time the first student had taken the role of teacher, or corrector. Ito was made redundant from the get-go as students darted around the class, checking and aiding their peers.

Throughout the 50-minute class, Ito subverted the “I, You, We” ritual. Students were called on to work in groups, individually, to stand up and present their answers at their desk and to come to the board and present their answers. He particularly enjoyed it when students arrived at different answers, or different routes to the same answer. As a class, they discussed how they arrived at the same answer through disparate routes.

Looking back on my own math education, we rarely, if ever, treated math as a discursive subject; but both at Ritsumeikan Primary and Oike Junior High, the teachers had students routinely work in pairs or bigger groups and talk about the problems. It seems so obvious in hindsight: Math is also a type of language, so why wouldn’t you discuss it like we do English, Japanese or social studies?

After the class, Ito told me: “If you teach what you learn, you will remember about 90 percent. If I stand at the board and just lecture, through listening to the teacher the students will retain far less — say, 40 percent — so it’s far more effective to have them discussing problems and teaching each other. Also, it’s important that there is very little downtime or rest time. You need to keep motivating them.”

These sentiments were echoed at Oike Junior High School. Tanaka-sensei’s third-grade class began with a group presentation using the electronic whiteboard. The four boys had two minutes to summarize and present the findings from the previous class, using a case example.

“It’s hard for them,” Tanaka said afterwards, “as they only started doing this in September of last year.”

His class of around 20 students was more or less identical to Ito’s: a continual mix of group problem-solving, discussions and presentations (although granted, the primary-schoolers were a little more enthusiastic).

“If it’s only me up there teaching in front of the class, I’m not helping students to get high scores in PISA tests,” Tanaka said. “But if you think about how to get students to think by themselves, you need to do a lot of research for this.”


Jugyōkenkyū can help, especially with novice teachers. However, from my interviews with math teachers, personal research seemed more important and effective.

“In a way, jugyōkenkyū is important,” conceded Shingo Fujinawa, a Kyoto University graduate and math teacher at Ibaraki Nishi High School. “It was a good opportunity to be inspired and recognize my teaching skill at that time. But I felt as if it had been a kind of ritual for a beginner teacher.

“Personally, my present teaching skill comes from my everyday experiences with my students as well as other media such as books, TV, which are much better than two observation classes in themselves.”

Other teachers told me of how they tried to stay abreast of new and different ways of teaching using teaching books and DVDs, as well as attending seminars and through informal discussions with colleagues. Investing so much personal time in your occupation is not unusual in Japan, where teachers often have an outsized role in addition to that of teacher: as counselor, surrogate parent.

“Japanese teachers work very hard for their students,” Tadakazu from the OECD told me via email. “They spend lots of their own time engaged in extracurricular activities. Teachers in Japan play a wider variety of roles for students than other countries’ teachers, whose main task is limited within their lessons. This perspective may support the fact that the dropout rate of Japanese students are very low.”

Of course, the elephant in the room is juku. In each interview, I asked teachers if they thought there was a link between Japan’s high standings in PISA and the fact that so many of their students attend juku. Even at a fee-paying school such as Ritsumeikan, where annual tuition costs are over ¥1 million, more than 50 percent of students attend juku. This figure can peak at as high as 90 percent in schools across the country in the final year of junior high and senior high, as students cram for entrance tests to get into high school and university.

Generally teachers are receptive of jukus and saw the complimentary role they play, especially in getting students past those all-important tests. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of teachers went to juku themselves and quite possibly taught there during university.

“Juku fills a role in preparing students for passing exams. However, school teaches you more than one answer and it allows for more creativity. Juku will show you the answer and the most efficient way to get it,” Ito said.

The fact that the math teachers I observed could spend so much time teaching instead of attending to matters of discipline may also impact on student ability and scores. Add to that teachers who have an active interest in their subject and their students, and this may go some way toward a theory of why Japan does math so well.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Erick Wilberding

    This is wonderful window into a great way to teach. Thanks.
    Erick Wilberding
    author of Teach like Socrates

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Observing elite schools tells you little or nothing about what goes on in ordinary public schools. Private elementary schools in Japan are very unusual and highly elite. Public middle schools are open to anyone in the catchment area but since neighborhoods tend to be somewhat or highly segregated by family income and educational level, you need to be very careful about class bias. Further, Kyoto is overall a high income, high education city so what you see there is not necessarily what you would see in a depressed neighborhood some place in Osaka. Further, while gakushu juku do some teaching to tests, in my experience (two kids going to juku currently, surveys of college students about their juku experiences), much of what juku do is explaining classroom content that kids did not grasp during class time. Finally, PISA tests 15-year olds. In Japan many of these kids are preparing for selective high school admission exams with the result that scores are probably pushed up somewhat over what they would be without the pressure of such exams. If you are going to make the claims the author of this article does you need to (1) exclude expensive private schools; (2) have a larger sample of public schools that reflects different income and educational levels of parents; (3) control explicitly for time and money spent on shadow education (juku).

    • kyushuphil

      If you Google Steve Sailer and PISA, or just U.S. race demographics in PISA, you can find more interesting stat break-downs.

      Seems that U.S. Asian-Americans score very near the top in the mean of the three categories — ahead of Japanese in Japan.

      White Americans score very well — at a level with the best of the Asians in Asia.

      Black Americans and Hispanic Americans score among the worst in the world.

      No magic bullets in here, except maybe for stable family life, decent income to support that, and keen educational interest within families.

      • Oliver Mackie

        “No magic bullets in here, except maybe for stable family life, decent income to support that, and keen educational interest within families.”

        Agreed.

  • kyushuphil

    I take some good excitement from this reporting.

    Japanese already excel in group cooperation, group harmony (kyō-chō-sei — 協 調 性). But the reporter makes clear that the students in Japanese math classes spend much good time helping each other, and discussing approaches openly with each other in class.

    This strategy can energize other classes. If Japanese also wrote more in school, they could swap essays with each other and improve their literacy and humanity at once in also citing others in the room in subsequent writing.

    Good teachers, in Japan, Finland, wherever, also very well keep up with developments in their field — and find students receptive to teachers’ own good energy and openness. Classes thus never spiral into the regimented and the mechanical.

    Some things may always excite. Good to see this whenever, wherever.

  • jimbo jones

    as long as the USA is where all the best mathematicians want to live, i think they’ll be alright

  • Guest

    I would also add that Japan has developed teaching for the test into an art-form worthy of any of their DOs (ways). In fact, test training for the way of test is mostly what Japanese education is about. Apply the Shintoist respect for things to machine production, and add a good dose of a lifetime spent at work, and you see that math education bear fruit in society.

    However, class sizes of 20 and electronic whiteboards are not representative of the schools I’ve been in, nor is peer teaching. Yet, these schools also send kids to the highest levels of university because they are trained on prior entrance exam problems and have mock exams on weekends. There are even some teachers still at school at 7 o’clock at night to answer students’ questions. And, yes, they go to cram schools.

    Thirty minutes at juku a week is a meaningless statistic. The enormous cram school/supplementary education materials industry would not exist if in-class techniques alone were so effective. If you want to see the kids who are keeping the national math averages so high, drive by a cram school at 10 o’clock at night just when they’re coming out, or take a look in the supplementary educational materials section of your local bookstore.

    To summarize, stay at school until seven at night, go to juku until 10 at night, spend thousands and thousands of yen on cram schools, mock exam fees and supplementary materials, and then spend most of your life at your work, and you too will have a high math ability that make a difference in society. Or, manage to squeeze into an elite institution such as those portrayed in this article (It also takes a whole lot of money to develop those skills as well!)

    Now, ask yourself if it is worth it. And, whoops, I almost forgot. A lot of these numbers are adding up to engineering which has led to a climate crisis on this planet!

    • kyushuphil

      Sōseki asked the “worth it” Q 100 years ago.

      His thoughts on that, in “Kusamakura,” “Sore Kara” (“And Then”), “Kokoro,” and “Light and Dark” all bear mention today.

      Do Japanese teachers much mention him, or his works, in the everyday machining of more souls to join the consumerism, the corporate rat race — the parallel Q of the mindless lemming threat to the planet environmentally, which you also raise?

  • Two Cents

    I would also add that Japan has developed teaching for the test into an art-form worthy of any of their DOs (ways). In fact, test training for the way of test is mostly what Japanese education is about. Apply the Shintoist respect for things to machine production, and add a good dose of a lifetime spent at work, and you see that math education bear fruit in society.

    However, class sizes of 20 and electronic whiteboards are not representative of the schools I’ve been in, nor is peer teaching. Yet, these schools also send kids to the highest levels of university because they are trained on prior entrance exam problems and have mock exams on weekends. There are even some teachers still at school at 7 o’clock at night to answer students’ questions. And, yes, the students go to cram schools.

    The enormous cram school/supplementary educational materials industry would not exist if in-class techniques alone were so effective. If you want to see the kids who are keeping the national math averages so high, drive by a cram school at 10 o’clock at night just when they’re coming out, or take a look in the supplementary educational materials section of your local bookstore. The thirty minutes at juku a week statistic simply reflects the fact that there are haves and have-nots.

    I’m sure most if not all of the kids who got into the schools featured here traveled the “have” course until entrance-exam day.

    • kyushuphil

      I saw your “comment” a few days ago. Now, it seems sadder yet.

      I mean, the reality you bespeak. The competitiveness. The race for numbers. The game-playing. All this saddens because of how it all so eclipses, aborts, or just plain infantilizes the human.

      Japanese excel in the OECD tests for math, science, and reading — all measures of logical acumen. I only wish teachers valued essay writing more, in that the essay allows the flourishing of the human voice, the recognition of other human voices, and the gift of posing questions, widening contexts, connecting more — more of the arts of humanly,

      This wish of mine, for more humanity skilled in the sympathies of humanity, of course doesn’t fly at all in the corporate era. Now, the biz packagers, the celeb shills, the marketing fixers all conspire only to the money racket — go spend, get stuff, get more stuff, in one’s designated consumer demo. That’s the game that now rules — and requires more nukes, more pollution, more chemicals, more autism, more demeaned and defeated hikikomori.

      And the teachers? Where are they, and their priorities?

  • KenjiAd

    I’ve heard many American math teachers saying they want their classes to be “fun.” You don’t see many Japanese math teachers saying the same thing.

    Apparently, Japanese students understand that math is hard and boring; they understand that, to learn math, you need to practice.

    American students, on the other hand, are led to believe that math is supposed to be fun. They don’t practice much, when they see no fun doing it.

    • James

      Spot on. This is related to something that as of today I find that no Western media or educator or even casual commentators have identified and debated on. As an educator myself, I find it to be the basic underlying difference between Western and Asian education systems: The basic problem is that students in Western countries have been largely spoiled so that they don’t have a motivation to study subjects like math, science or engineering. My sister is a secondary school teacher in Australia and I have often heard her complaining that the system demands her to be a “clown” in the classroom. Instead of just imparting facts and knowledge, she is supposed to be “fun” like you say to capture students’ interest. You need to visit a school in India or China or Japan to see the insatiable thirst for knowledge students have all without the teaching having to clown about. That is why, Asians – Chinese, Indians and Japanese will always excel in subjects like math.

    • Starviking

      I don’t think students need to understand that math is hard and boring. What most maths teaching fails to teach about maths is that it is useful.

  • Lizzy R

    Not necessarily. I am an international student studying at a Japanese high school. And I can say with absolute faith that Japanese students are no more motivated than American students, plain and simple. There is a key factor though in why people assume Japanese students are so hard working. It’s because the only job a Japanese student has is to study. Unlike American students while in high school Japanese students can not have jobs. Most Japanese high school don’t allow students to have jobs because this will distract them from their studies. Also most seniors in high schools are not allowed to participate in clubs because this will also distract them from studying.
    Also there is a key difference in the academics taught. While American school have a more rounded education system allowing arts and electives to be taught. The Japanese system varies drastically. The arts are almost nonexistent. In my school my class only has one art class one day a week. And this was only implemented after a recent change ordered by the education council. Before that only first years in high school had any arts. This means almost all the classes are math and science related.
    Another big factor is high school is not required by law in Japan. This impacts students greatly. Going to school, even high school here is not cheep. Students are required to pay school fees and to buy their own textbooks. Going to school is a big deal. But does this make students any more motivated. Not necessarily. You can see students sleeping during lesson, cramming last minute, not finishing homework. Teenagers are teenagers no matter where you are. They get fidgety, bored, sleepy, and unmotivated siting through hours of lectures each day. Unlike American school Japanese schools are a lot less interactive. Unless talking about the very elite schools which are in a different category altogether. Lessons mostly consist of students listening and taking notes as the teacher talks. Students are barely given any room to explore any interests they have outside of school. Even during break there is so much homework that most students are unable to do anything else besides work on assignments. As I participate in the lessons I can testify to the almost unbearable workload.
    Even though Japan and other Asian countries have amazing test scores, you can not conclude this to be because their education system is superior. Their system is fundamentally different from the American education system. Does that make theirs any superior? No. Even though their system may be brilliant is some ways it is also deeply lacking in others. Not to say that the American system is perfect either. But we can both learn from both systems to create better educations systems world wide. One is not necessarily better than the other.

  • Starviking

    Pretty poor logic with the intro: Japan has 10 Physics laureates, but the UK has 19 (discounting foreign-born Britions). Japan has about twice the population of the UK, which effectively puts Japan’s ratio to the UK at 1:4. So either the UK is better at maths than Japan, or the intro analogy is poor.

    As for the low amount of after-school work, given that the students have to devote an inordinate amount of time to club activities, so that parents may work late, it is no wonder that homework *officially* gets little time after school. In my experience, a lot of homework is done in school, which is probably not recorded in the PISA statistics. That said, this is self reporting by students. Coming from a Confucian-influenced country such reports should be treated with extreme skepticism.

    Now Jugyōkenkyū may help with maths, but in other subjects, like English, it can lead to senior teachers’ fossilized thinking being passed on down to the next generation.

    As for teachers spending time on extracurricular activities, spending time with their students, that is time unavailable for teacher development and lesson planning. Hardly a thing to be seen as positive.

    And as for the section on Juku:

    “Juku fills a role in preparing students for passing exams. However, school teaches you more than one answer and it allows for more creativity.”

    Possibly in maths only. Additionally, Juku is not as accessible for the poor or rural residents – and so creates an educational underclass – for whom putting effort into club activities is the goal of education – as they’re not going to get all the education they need to pass exams in school.