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Why Japanese students excel at mathematics

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Special To The Japan Times

Ever since the Common Core state standards were introduced in the United States, teachers for good reason have been under pressure to improve outcomes in math. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, there were no score improvements in math for any student group in 2015 compared to 2013.

In desperation, officials have looked abroad for a solution, which they believe they’ve finally found in Japanese math. Unlike traditional methods in the U.S. that stress memorization, Japanese math emphasizes problem solving. Its sansu arithmetic aligns with the Common Core standards, providing a strong incentive for teachers to adopt the pedagogy.

The irony is that Japanese math is actually based on a method first advocated in the U.S. by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the 1980s but never fully adopted by classroom teachers. As a result, memorization continued to be the predominant strategy, with heavy reliance on worksheets.

In contrast, Japan immediately recognized the benefits of teaching students how to invent solutions. Teachers provide a context for the lesson so that what follows has greater meaning than merely getting the correct answer on a worksheet. The objective is to engage students through hatsumon (question addressing a concept). When done effectively, students see the connections between what they’re learning and real life situations. In the process, they gain self-confidence and enthusiasm.

Part of the reason for the success of Japanese teachers is the use of jugyokenkyu (lesson study). It’s an invaluable way for teachers to improve their instruction. A teacher first prepares a lesson, and then teaches it in front of students, other teachers, and at least one university professor. The observers meet to discuss the lesson with the teacher. Without this feedback, teachers are forced to rely on their own judgment, which is not always accurate.

What ultimately emerges is that the way math is taught determines how much students learn. That may seem obvious enough, but it has been given short shrift in the debate. Although the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has endorsed the Common Core standards, teachers on average have been given fewer than four days of training, and those four days included training for the language arts standards as well.

This pattern has been seen before. Math instruction in the U.S. has undergone several iterations. In the 1960s, the “new math” was introduced in reaction to the post-Sputnik news. But little changed because teachers were not provided proper training. If the past is any indication, the excitement will be followed by confusion and a return to conventional practices.

It’s not that math teachers in the U.S. don’t want to change, but they don’t know how to do so. In Japan, teachers have been given far greater support in implementing new approaches. The results are reflected in scores on tests of international competition.

It’s too soon to conclude that Americans suffer from incurable innumeracy. But time if running out. The demands of the global economy are increasing pressure on schools to produce far better educated students in math.

Walt Gardner, who taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years, writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.