U.S. turns to Japanese textbooks to teach math

Kyodo News

Mathematics textbooks produced in English for primary school children, and released by two publishers in Tokyo, have drawn praise from overseas academics imporessed by the way Jpaanese kids are taught the subject.

Tokyo Shoseki Co. in February published 5,000 sets of its English-language math textbook series for students from the first to sixth grades, while Gakko Tosho Co. published 3,000 sets of its textbook series in April last year.

Tokyo Shoseki said it had soled nearly 700 sets so far to individuals and organizations–including in the United States. Gakko Tosho’s initial run has sold out with one-third of the sets going overseas for study by academics.

Both series are tranlstations of an original Japanese version that has been used in schools. Problems, images charts and graphs as well as their layouts are left unchanged.

Each set has 11 books–one for the first grade and two each for the second to sixth grade — with a price tag of about 11,000 yen.

Akihiko Takahashi, a Japanese expert in on school math education at DePaul University in Chicago, said scholars in many countries have been interested in Japanese math textbooks since the country’s method of teaching the subject was praised in a best-selling book in the United States in 1999.

In the book “The Teaching Gap”, two U.S. scholars compared teaching methods in shcools in Japan, Germany and the United States.

The authors concluded Japanese students are better trained to think about mathematical concepts before finding answers to problems than those in the United States and Germany, who mainly follow teachers’  instructions.

But Takahashi said researchers overseas had difficulty in finding out about the Japanese education system at that time because of a lack of English information. “Now we can send out much more information overseas,” he said.

Takahashi has worked in the United States since 1998, instructing university students on how to improve methods of teaching children math. He was one of the academics who helped Tokyo SHoseki compile its textbooks.

katsuaki Serizawa, editor in chief of Gakko Tosho’s textbooks, said authors of U.S. textbooks seem to give students answers very quickly, while in Japan the emphasis is on encouraging children to think about mathematical concepts.

“When you teach the circle ratio, for example, teachers in the United States tend to tell children an answer like,” You first memorize pi. It’s 3.14,”” he said.

“Japanese children are first told to measure the circumferences of circles and then diameters, and make a chart containing the figures to calculate their ratios. It means teachers try to emphasize the process of reaching the figure of 3.14. We compile textbooks following this policy,” he said.

Meanwhile, here in Japan, some teachers think the math books are a good resource for helping students learn English.

Emiko Takahashi of Senjusakura Primary School in Tokyo took a look at the books in an Aug. 1 academic event organized by the Japan Society of Mathmatical Education and said, “I plan to use these in my English class from September.”

Catherine Lewis, a U.S. researcher on math education, praised the Japanese method, expressing hope the Japan-made English textbooks trigger debate in other countries about how to improve their math education systems.

The Japanese textbooks “don’t immediately tell you how to solve them [math problems]. If you immediately tell children how to solve things it can short-circuit thinking,” said the research scholar at Mills College in California.

Chizuko Matsumoto, who works at the Education Ministry of the Marshall Islands as a teacher trainer, said there was an urgent need for teachers’ manuals in English for teh Japanese textbooks.

Matsumoto said the lack of such manuals doomed an attempt to introduce Gakko Tosho’s textbooks in primary schools there.


See also “US kids get it right with S’pore maths

FRANKLIN LAKES (NEW JERSEY): Franklin Lakes, a well-to-do suburb north-west of Manhattan, is one of dozens of school districts in the United States that, in recent years, have adopted ‘Singapore maths’, amid growing concerns that too many US students lack the higher-order mathematics skills called for in a global economy.

For decades, efforts to improve maths skills have driven schools to embrace one maths programme after another, abandoning a programme when it did not work and moving on to something purportedly better.

In the 1960s, there was the ‘new maths’, whose focus on abstract theories spurred a back-to-basics movement, emphasising rote learning and drills. After that came ‘reform maths’, where the focus on problem solving and conceptual understanding has been derided by critics as the ‘new new maths’.

Singapore maths might be a fad too, but supporters say it seems to address one of the difficulties in teaching maths: all children learn differently.

In contrast to the most common maths programmes in the US, Singapore maths devotes more time to fewer topics to ensure that children master the material through detailed instruction, questions, problem solving, and visual and hands-on aids like blocks, cards and bar charts. Ideally, they do not move on until they have learnt a topic thoroughly.

Principals and teachers say that slowing down the learning process gives children a solid maths foundation upon which to build increasingly complex skills, and it makes it less likely that they will forget and have to be retaught the same material in later years.

And with Singapore maths, the pace can accelerate by fourth and fifth grade, putting children as much as a year ahead of pupils in other maths programmes as they grasp complex problems more quickly.

‘Our old programme, Everyday Maths, did not do that,’ said Ms Danielle Santoro, assistant principal of Public School 132 in Brooklyn, which introduced Singapore maths last year for all 700 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade. Under the old programme, ‘one day it could be money, the next day it could be time, and you would not get back to those concepts until a week later’.

Singapore maths was developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Education nearly 30 years ago, and the textbooks have been imported to the US for more than a decade. The earliest adopters were homeschool parents and a small number of schools that had heard about it through word of mouth.

Today, it can be found in neighbourhood schools like Public School 132, which serves mostly poor and minority children, as well as in elite schools like the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, a private school attended by President Barack Obama’s daughters.

SingaporeMath.com, a company that has distributed the ‘Primary Mathematics’ books in the US since 1998, reports that it now sells to more than 1,500 schools, about twice as many as in 2008. And Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math In Focus, the US edition of a popular Singapore maths series, is now used in 120 school districts and 60 charter schools and private schools, the publisher says.

Some recent research suggests that students who are taught Singapore maths score higher on standardised maths tests. In anecdotal reports, teachers say the method helps young children to develop confidence in their maths abilities.

School officials still caution that Singapore maths is not easy or cheap to successfully adopt. In some districts, there has also been scepticism from school board members and parents about importing a foreign maths programme. Early versions of textbooks contained references to curry puffs and the Asian fruit rambutan.

Mr Bill Jackson, a Singapore maths coach at an elementary school in Scarsdale, New York, began experimenting with Singapore maths while teaching at School 2 in Paterson, New Jersey, in 2000. Test scores were mixed, and the school replaced it four years later. Despite the replacement, Mr Jackson continued to use it when he could.

‘I learnt more maths from Singapore maths than I ever did in high school or college,’ he said.

Source: Straits Times Digital, Oct 2, 2010

1 thought on “U.S. turns to Japanese textbooks to teach math”

  1. I hav just completed my bachelor of mathematics education from my country Nepal. Can I be a mathematics teacher in Japan. If yes please provide me some informations and steps to be a maths teacher in Japan….waiting your reply…thanyou

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