Should We Follow Japanese Maths Teaching?

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Improving mathematics standards in the US has been a common goal since the Common Core State Standards were introduced. Unfortunately if we use the National Assessment of Educational Progress figures there have been no improvements in maths at all during the last few years.

This has pushed American educational experts to look overseas for some inspiration, and they think they’ve found some answers in the way the Japanese teach maths. Unlike the traditional US strategies which focus on memorizing, the Japanese method will focus on solving mathematical problems.The method is Sansu arithmetic and it actually aligns quite neatly with the US Common Core so it wouldn’t actually be that difficult.

It’s actually somewhat ironic that the method adopted by the Japanese was actually first identified in the USA. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics investigated this method in the 1980s however it was never officially adopted.And so, some 40 years on our children are still learning mathematics by memorising from simple sheets.

The Japanese instantly recognized the benefits to students of being able to create their own solutions and methods for solving problems.  It means that in classes, you can create a context and student will learn much more easily than simply learning by rote from a sheet of paper.  A similar method has been tried in some European countries including in Germany, article on BBC about German education on BBC iPlayer, access here.  The focus is to learn and interest students by a concept called hatsumon (addressing a concept through questioning). If it taught well, students will see their learning benefit them in real life situations.Which also helps promote elements of self confidence and some enthusiasm for the subject.

Lessons are created by individual teachers who then try the lesson in front of students and other teachers including a professor. The lesson is then discussed with the teacher so that feedback can be given and modifications made if necessary.If there is no feedback teachers are forced to make their own decisions on the quality of their own lessons.

These might seem like simple, common sense steps but unfortunately they are missing in many Western classrooms.There are many critics of the Common Core standards despite being endorsed by most educational organisations in the United States. One of the issues though is that teachers are given very limited training in the method.

A shortcoming which we’ve seen before. In the 1960s, there was a big push to introduce ‘new maths’ to push onto the space age. There was much enthusiasm but little change simply because nothing was invested in training the teachers in new methods.

There is a feeling that maths teaching in the US should change but a lack of direction and funding to implement this change. Japanese teachers get much more support whenever new methods are implemented across any area of education.Which in turn is usually reflected in the scores of students in international comparison tables.

There is no reason to accept that American students should be worse at maths. However, the fact is that a global economy demands certain skills and mathematics is at the top of that list.

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