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Doing Math the Easy Way

Parents and teachers should focus on developing students’ basic skills

By Ronald K. Kamdem

A study published last week by The New York Times showing the poor performance of American students on international tests has led school boards nationwide to rethink the way they have structured their mathematics curriculum.

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics experimented with a new form of teaching. They proposed that teachers should let children explore their own methods of problem solving—diagrams , tables, and calculators if necessary. Unfortunately, allowing children to find their own ways of dealing with math problems as opposed to emphasizing the mastery of basic math drills has not gotten results. The Bush administration has created a panel to do research on teaching math as a response to this problem. But they would save a good deal of time and effort if they took hints from some of our mathematically superior neighbors.

The U.S. should look to other countries with high achievements in math to determine which teaching methods are effective and how to implement them. The more time that students spend practicing basic math skills, the better their proficiency. In the U.S., the standard of math lags behind because in-class time is not sufficient for some students to master a certain topic, and the students do not spend enough time outside of the classroom working on that topic. The government should work with parents and guardians to ensure that students practice a lot of math after school or at home because in-class time is just not sufficient for mastery of some concepts for an average student.

As Japan has showed us, the answer to our mathematical dilemma in the U.S. is a five-letter word: Kumon. Kumon is one of the largest math and language tutoring methods in the world. Kumon is also a tutoring center for students that was founded in Japan, but has branches in the U.S. It uses repetition and drills to teach students basic computational skills. Students are given packets with exercises they can complete at their own pace. Once students complete the packets, they turn it in for a grade and, depending on that grade, students get packets of the same level or of the next level in the Kumon curriculum. Kumon covers everything from basic algebra all the way up to differential calculus.

Kumon and other similar teaching methods are the best way to ensure that students practice math skills outside the classroom. Mastery is something that takes time and practice even for some of the most gifted students. The government should focus on ways to fund tutoring through schools or through local organization so that it is available to all students regardless of economic background. Instead of trying to come up with some revolutionary method of teaching math, we should simply learn from what Japan and other foreign countries are doing. Tutoring is best in small doses: not too much to overwhelm children, but enough so that they can develop genuine appreciation and enjoyment of math. Students are going to need a lot of support from parents because the distinction between Kumon and mindless repeated labor can be very gray at times.

However, tutoring is just like a pill and American students will not get better unless they take it, no matter how bitter it is.

Ronald Kamdem ’10, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Grays Hall.

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