Japan-made English math texts intriguing overseas educators

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Kyodo News

Mathematics textbooks for elementary school children in English released by two major publishers in Tokyo have drawn attention from overseas academics impressed by the way Japanese kids are taught the subject.

Tokyo Shoseki Co. in February published 5,000 sets of its English math textbook series for students from first to sixth grades, while Gakko Tosho Co. published 3,000 sets of its textbook series in April 2005.

Tokyo Shoseki said it has sold nearly 700 sets so far to people and organizations, including in the United States. Gakko Tosho’s initial run has sold out, with one-third of the sets going to other countries for study by academics.

Both series are translations of an original Japanese version that is or has been used in schools. Problems, images, charts and graphs as well as layouts are unchanged.

Each set has 11 books — one for the first year and two each from second to sixth year — at a price tag of 11,000 yen, or approximately $96.

Akihiko Takahashi, a Japanese expert on school math education at DePaul University in Chicago, said scholars in many countries have been interested in Japanese math textbooks since the country’s method of teaching the subject was praised in a best-selling book in the United States in 1999.

In “The Teaching Gap,” two U.S. scholars compared teaching methods in schools in Germany, Japan and the United States.

The authors concluded Japanese students are better trained to think about mathematical concepts before finding answers to problems than those in the United States and Germany, who mainly follow teachers’ instructions.

But Takahashi said researchers overseas had difficulty learning about the Japanese education system at that time because of a lack of English information. “Now we can send out much more information overseas,” he said.

Takahashi has worked in the United States since 1998 instructing students at DePaul on how to improve methods of teaching children math. He was one of the academics who helped Tokyo Shoseki compile its textbooks.

Katsuaki Serizawa, editor in chief of Gakko Tosho’s textbooks, said authors of U.S. textbooks tend to give students the answers quickly while those in Japan are trying to encourage children to think about math concepts.

“When you teach the circle ratio, for example, teachers in the United States tend to easily tell children an answer like, ‘You first memorize pi. It’s 3.14,’ ” Serizawa said.

“Japanese children are first told to measure the circumferences of circles and then their diameters, and make a chart containing the figures to calculate their ratios. It means teachers try to emphasize the process of reaching the figure of 3.14. We compile textbooks following this policy,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Japan, some teachers think the math books are a good material for helping students learn English.

Emiko Takahashi of Tokyo’s Senjusakura Elementary School took a look at the books at an Aug. 1 academic event organized by the Japan Society of Mathematical Education and said, “I plan to use these in my English class from September.”

Catherine Lewis, a U.S. researcher on math education in many countries, praised the Japanese method, hoping the English textbooks trigger debate in other countries about how to improve math education systems.

The Japanese textbooks “don’t immediately tell you how to solve (math problems). If you immediately tell children how to solve things, it can short-circuit thinking,” said the research scholar at Mills College in California.

Chizuko Matsumoto, who is working at the Education Ministry of the Marshall Islands as a teacher trainer, said there is an urgent need for teachers manuals in English for the Japanese textbooks.

Matsumoto said the lack of such manuals doomed an attempt to introduce Gakko Tosho’s textbooks in elementary schools in the Pacific country.

“Many teachers were interested in the books and the Japanese way of teaching math. But they realized soon that it’s almost impossible to use the books in classrooms without manuals,” Matsumoto said.

Echoing Matsumoto’s view, Lewis said Japanese math textbooks are designed not to contain much text and that a manual is therefore needed to help teachers give verbal explanations in class.

“There is not a huge amount of text (in Japanese textbooks). It’s a very careful focus on what’s important,” she said.

Lewis also said teachers manuals in Japan differ in that they are compiled based on teachers’ discussions of their experiences of the mistakes children make in the classroom.

“The big difference between Japanese textbooks and other countries’ is that . . . information about how children think is really included in the design of the lessons and in the teachers manuals,” she said.

Serizawa said Gakko Tosho is aware of the need for such manuals and has started to consider compiling a teachers manual in English for its English textbooks, but no details have been decided.

“It depends on how confident we can be that the project will pay,” he said.