Commentary / Japan

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.