Japan has a word to add about teaching math

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

When it comes to math, students in the United States have trailed their counterparts in Japan on tests of international competition for so long that closing the gap seems utterly hopeless.

For example, the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment, administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, revealed that only 9 percent of American students performed at the highest proficiency levels in math compared with 23 percent of Japanese students.

Student outcomes based on the educational levels of their parents were not much better. American students posted a 43 percent proficiency rate when their families had strong educational backgrounds. This compared with a 68 percent rate for Japanese students.

The persistent disappointing outcomes have led some reformers to conclude that Americans suffer from an incurable case of innumeracy.

But before jumping to that bleak conclusion, the same critics might want to ask if the situation is the result of the way the subject is taught in schools in the U.S. Math is typically presented as a list of rules to be memorized, rather than as a way of perceiving the world.

Moreover, teachers rarely have an opportunity during the regular school day to discuss their teaching methods with other teachers and even more rarely to get feedback.

As a result, efforts to bring them up to date with new ideas typically founder.

In contrast, teachers in Japan rely on jugyokenkyu (class study), which provides them with invaluable information about their lessons. The process involves teaching in front of a live classroom composed of students, other teachers and at least one university observer.

What immediately follows is an analysis of what transpired in order to reinforce best practices.

One reason for the different approach is that teachers in Japan teach 600 or fewer hours each school year. This affords them the time to collaborate.

American teachers often go nearly 1,100 hours with little feedback. Department meetings held at the end of the school day do little to improve math instruction because teachers are too exhausted to be receptive.

So it’s not surprising that over the decades better ways to teach math have not gained traction. Without guidance, innovation causes confusion and frustration. When that happens, teachers invariably fall back on what’s most familiar to them.

The Common Core math standards now in the spotlight are likely to meet the same fate unless teachers are given the equivalent of jugyokenkyu. That’s because most teachers in the U.S. have spent fewer than four days in Common Core training. Given the high-stakes involved, that’s hardly sufficient.

But there are also cultural factors at work that are given short shrift in explaining the difference in performance in math between Japanese and American students. Japan’s education system since the end of World War II has been known for parental involvement, discipline and study.

Instruction is typically a monologue, with the teacher speaking and students receiving. This style is often referred to as the sage on the stage. It is particularly suited for teaching math skills at an early age when basics are established.

When the Education Ministry years ago adopted yutori kyoiku (slower-paced education) as a way of producing creative thinking, student performance on international tests began to slip. The blowback resulted in restoration of the old standards. However, the debate is far from settled.

Whatever the outcome, Japan must be doing something right or its students wouldn’t excel on the closely watched tests of international competition. Whether Japan’s pedagogy can establish roots in the U.S. largely depends on the ultimate importance given to rankings.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

  • phu

    “Whatever the outcome, Japan must be doing something right or its students wouldn’t excel on the closely watched tests of international competition.”

    I have a hard time deciding whether this statement clashes with the rest of the article or puts it in perspective. The entire piece strongly suggests that the result of Japanese education is practical skills, while the actual statistics cited come from standardized tests. As it’s widely understood that such tests are usually the driver of education in Japan, this seems like a questionable metric.

    The description of Japan’s teaching method for math here flies in the face of everything I’ve ever heard or read about it. Obviously that does not mean it’s false, but given the rigidly test-oriented nature of Japanese education and the cultural value placed on conformity, I have to wonder whether this system is geared towards improving education on a per-teacher basis or if it’s actually a method of standards enforcement through required peer review.

    “Whether Japan’s pedagogy can establish roots in the U.S. largely depends on the ultimate importance given to rankings.”

    Also notably, whether Japan’s pedagogy SHOULD establish roots anywhere else depends highly on both the importance given to rankings (which is usually far too much) and the real-world effectiveness of such practices.

    I’ve spoken with Japanese who showed me the way they learned multiplication when they were children; it was totally new to me and incredibly intuitive. Depending on what level and kind of math is being tested here (which is entirely undefined in this piece), I wonder if this observation is indeed the result of enviable pedagogy or whether it’s some combination of solid foundations combined with a compulsion for teaching to the test.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Time warp article. Why focus on Japan? There are quite a number of countries that do better than the US. Many Japanese specialists seem to think that Finland does it better than Japan. The teaching techniques cited by the author are used primarily for elementary school teaching. The PISA tests come at age 15 after Japanese students have had quite different teaching in middle school. Further, the kids taking the PISA tests include a large fraction who have received supplementary instruction from the shadow education sector (gakushujuku). That is where, to cite one example, my 14 year old son learns his math. The shadow education sector does not teach the same way as state (aka public) schools do. Without subtracting the kids who have received supplementary education from the PISA scores and/or investigating teaching methods in the shadow education sector, it is not really possible to say how well or how poorly the Japanese system performs.

  • GBR48

    You simply won’t get change [in state schools] in the West if it costs more. Halving the teaching load would require doubling the number of teachers, which isn’t an option. The ‘sage on the stage’ approach may also encounter ‘cultural differences’. It simply wouldn’t work as well in the West.

    Most governments will be happy if the % of kids going into professions requiring enhanced mathematical ability approximates to the % that can and do learn maths beyond the basics, the rest needing to be able to manage their personal finances and little else. As the modern curriculum expands, (without denigrating the importance of maths) over-educating in one area at the expense of others may need to be eradicated. It’s a delicate balance.

    From what the article says, it seems that Japan has chosen increased mathematical ability over creativity. Every nation has its own priorities, but Japan may wish to sacrifice some of those maths lessons for English lessons. International fluency may offer better earnings potential and wider opportunities to some school leavers than ninja-level trigonometry.

  • USTerminator

    The secondary education system in US is in such abomination that in cities that 50% of high school graduated students would not even comprehend reading and writing English properly. Instead they know about booze, sex and drug better than anyone else. On the bright side, the one who are serious about studying can stand tall with any peers throughout the globe.

  • 013090

    I don’t think a simple analysis like this can tell us much if one doesn’t factor in the role of cram schools in Japanese education.