Reporter’s Notebook Does Kumon Work?

The Japanese math and reading program drives kids crazy. Strange to say, they seem to love it.

We were eating breakfast when I happily announced to my 8-year-old daughter that I was writing an article about Kumon for D Magazine. As usual, I was caught off guard: “You can’t. Mom,” she said. tears streaming into her cereal bow!. “If people find out about Kumon, I won’t be the smartest kid in math anymore.”
I hate being a writer.
Rewind, about two weeks.
I am rummaging through a dining room cabinet. Behind some forgotten plates, I make a discovery1. For an unknown period of time, this daughter has been collecting largish paper wads, all former Kumon math worksheets. There are. perhaps, dozens of them. When I confront her, she shows no remorse. Rather than offer an apology or even an excuse, she says: “I am not a free person. I am not a free person because I have to do Kumon.”
My daughter’s love-hate relationship with Kumon, the Japanese after-school math and reading program is not. I suspect, uncommon. In sharp contrast to most of modern education, Kumon does not disguise the fact that it is work. In Dallas-Fort Worth 2,164 children arc currently enrolled in Kumon. Six days a week. every week of the year, these children complete anywhere from about three to 10 pages of worksheets in math or reading (or both). The work is purposely repetitious, and it is timed. Kumon is not. by any definition, “fun”; it offers no educational bells and whistles, no direct instruction, and none of the feel-good of a $25-to-$50 tutor. Still, children love Kumon, and for a better reason: It works. According to interviews with dozens of local families, the children who stick with Kumon have an unusually mature understanding that it really helps them. Many of the children who are working effortlessly a couple of years ahead of grade level understand its value so well they’d just as soon have it kept secret.
Though it is relatively undiscovered here. Kumon claims to be the largest after-school program in the world, with 2.5 million students currently enrolled. It began in 1954 when a Japanese high school teacher named Toru Kumon set out to help his second-grade son with math. His son was struggling, so Kumon created a series of worksheets that broke down the mathematical process in such manageable units that his son was able to do most of the work independently.a”self-study1’ technique that Kumon felt was important to build the child’s self-reliance and confidence. Each day seven-year-old Takeshi would complete several small pages of math problems, all while being timed. If he had difficulty understanding a new concept, his father would explain it and then back away. By the sixth grade, essentially on his own, Takeshi had mastered integral and differentiated calculus-simply by spending about 20 to 30 minutes a day on his father’s worksheets.
Mastery is the key principle in Kumon. “Most American students are math dilettantes,” says Amanda Jordan, who directs the North Texas Kumon region. “I taught for 21 years in a local public school system, and I saw so much failure. Most children could finesse their way through fifth grade math without really mastering the basics. By the time they hit sixth or seventh grade-especially with the introduction of fractions-they hit a wall.”
Jordan, looking for something new, was intrigued with the Kumon program and started teaching it. In Dallas-Fort Worth there are now 23 teachers,each with his own center-in churches, community centers, offices, and schools. The teachers are professional educators or parents of Kumon students who have become “believers.” While any new teaching method should rightly be regarded with skepticism it’s hard to find fault with Kumon. For one thing, the Kumon method is not terribly new; in math we’re talking worksheets, a sophisticated version of the “mad minutes” or “bell ringers” sooftenused in elementary classrooms. Kumon also is not mysterious or terribly innovative. Each student is evaluated when he first enters the program. After the teacher assesses his proficiency level, the child receives a set of worksheets, which are deliberately easy. The “comfortable starting point” can be off-putting to parents and students (a St. Mark’s student who started the Kumon program in sixth grade and “hated it” said he found it pointless to be filling in worksheets with simple single-digit addition). But at the core of the Kumon method is student confidence, which is why the worksheets begin at a place where the student is virtually guaranteed to achieve 100 percent accuracy at a brisk pace. Once the student completes a series of worksheets, he is tested. If the student has a perfect or near-perfect score within a certain time frame, he moves to the next level. If the student is too slow, or makes errors, or if the teacher observes hesitation in the process- a stalled pencil, some daydreaming, or anxiety-the student repeats the work until he has fully, comfortably mastered the concept.
While repetition might be “bor-ring,” the ongoing practice serves a great purpose, especially for students with learning differences. The Kumon worksheets, which amount to a mini-test almost every day of the year, quickly become familiar and non-threatening. If a student appears to be stressed learning a new concept-say, adding fractions-the teacher pulls back on the material until the student can manage it comfortably. Once a student has grasped a new concept, he reviews it for weeks until he feels confident and relaxed, a luxury for children who have academic difficulties.
The typical student-age 4 to 18-goes to a Kumon Center twice a week. He enters with little more than a pleasant greeting, and takes his work from his folder. After noting the time, he begins his work. At any given moment, there might be as many as 40 students sitting at tables and working in a Kumon center. Pencils move fluidly down the page. Facial expressions are relaxed. Legs do not jiggle. The only sound is the worksheets being detached from a light adhesive that binds them. When a student has finished, he notes the time and submits his work to the teacher, who grades it. Based on the teacher’s observations and the student’s performance, the teacher will compile a series of worksheets to be completed each day until they meet again. The on-site encounter lasts about 30 minutes. The support is quiet and dignified, Nobody gets a sticker or a lollipop.
“I have seen students at all levels enjoy success with Kumon.” says Bernadette Lin. who runs one of the largest centers in North Dallas, with about 200 students. “We have children who have learning differences,average students,and gifted and talented children taking Kumon. At so me centers we even have severely physically and mentally disabled children succeeding at the program. Because we create individualized plans, each child moves at his own pace.
“While math and reading are the subjects we teach, what we really develop is concentration,” Lin says. “Once a child is in our program and works it every day. he develops an amazing ability to focus.” Kumon. which requires complete mental engagement, may well be the antidote to the mental passivity bred by other Japanese imports, like big screen televisions and Pokémon.
The aim of Kumon is not to create little AI Einsteins and Billy Gateses. though the child who begins early and works rigorously through the math program may be doing algebra by fifth or sixth grade. Instead, using a flexible but highly calibrated learning system, Kumon strives to develop independence, confidence, and mental focus. Children who take the math curriculum tend to make fewer “careless mistakes” and often do not need to double check their work as much because they are so focused and well-trained in the basics of mental computation. The reading program is devoted to teaching a child to read, analyze, and comprehend at a deep level. But the true genius of the Kumon system lies in the incremental steps that its Japanese creators have developed to allow a child to self-teach himself math and reading (in English, no less), all through the mere interaction with worksheets.
In this fashion Kumon is the antithesis of a tutorial. For one thing, it’s more affordable. Students meet with their teachers twice a week and are supplied daily worksheets for an entire month. The cost of this is $75 to S100 a month, depending on the teacher and the subjects taken. But there is another crucial difference: Kumon is not about the teacher. It is about the independent learner and his worksheets, with support provided by the teacher and, to an even greater extent, the parents. (Big note to parents; Your role is not only to provide support and encouragement but to actually correct the worksheets on a daily basis,)
Of course, there are downsides: Kumon is not a quick fix. A student who starts “late”- after fourth or fifth grade -will find it takes months, maybe even longer, to work up to grade level. Most Kumon dropouts are students who start the program at an older age and arrive with delays and frustrations already in place. If the student is willing to make the commitment, the late arrival to Kumon can succeed, but like the student from St. Mark’s, he will have to accept a lot of “easy” worksheets, and buy into the assumption that it is in his best interest to start at the beginning. (An SMU student who was failing algebra – and had not truly mastered multiplication- went to Kumon for help and spent a year relearning the fundamentals with a special focus on fractions. While he never became a math wizard, he did pass algebra.)
Patience is rewarded. One mother in Northwest Dallas said her daughter was about to drop Kumon after working the system for two years with no tangible improvement. “It was getting to be a power struggle to get her to do the work, and we were about to give up. But we decided to give it a few more months. Suddenly, it clicked. She sped ahead, and now she is working above grade level and. best of all. she’s happy.”
For the overbooked children who have homework projects, scrimmages, orthodontist appointments, and recitals to lit into their schedules. summoning the discipline to work 20 to 30 minutes a day on Kumon worksheets is a real challenge. And for Kumon to work, it has to be done as prescribed: timed and on a daily basis. Students who cram, rushing through two or three day’s worth of work in a single sitting, do not progress.
Our family had a mixed experience. When we started Kumon. I enrolled three of my daughters; at the time, the children were in seventh grade, fourth grade, and pre-school. Only the youngest, now in second grade, is still enrolled, and she clearly is ambivalent about her Kumon.
Or is she?
In the course of writing this article. 1 told her that Kumon offered a reading program (she was only taking math at the lime) and her eyes got wide. “Why didn’t you tell me? I need to do reading. When can I start? “
What do I know?
Maybe Kumon is fun.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments