Some observations of Japanese math classes

Many critics of our education system have used evidence of the superiority of Japanese students, especially in math and science, to argue their case for the necessity for change. Notwithstanding certain crucial differences between the populations of Japan and the United States, size and diversity, for example, these are disturbing comparisons. The following are some observations made by American math educators on a fact-finding mission to Japanese schools.

School environment

Parents carefully prepare their children for entrance into school. From the beginning, the emphasis in school is on proper behavior, the correct attitude toward learning and respect for teachers. Parents, teachers and students assume that learning is the product of effort, perseverance and self-discipline, rather than ability. All students are regarded as capable of learning mathematics.

Starting in first grade, students are taught specific study habits, such as how to keep a notebook for each subject. In grades one through three, the main emphasis is on developing these constructive learning skills. All Japanese students at the elementary and junior high level are taught in rather large, heterogeneous classes. Promotion to the next grade is automatic and those who need extra help receive it outside of school, and it is usually the parents who arrange for it.

The physical well-being and fitness of children is a high priority as well. Children have many opportunities throughout the school day to be physically active. After their first 50-minute class period, there is a 10-minute break. After their second class, students have a 20-25 minute break, then another 10-minute break after the next class. Following the fourth period, students take lunch and another recess, and this is followed by a 20-minute period during which they clean up the rooms and hallways. All schools have swimming pools and every student participates in a variety of indoor and outdoor sports.

Mathematics instruction

Mathematics is stressed and usually taught first thing in the morning. Teachers must cover a set curriculum mandated by the government. This curriculum, however, emphasizes learning math through discussion and group problem-solving, rather than learning by doing large numbers of written example. In a typical math lesson, teachers spend the first 5 or 10 minutes reviewing the previous day’s problems, and this is followed with an introduction of the problem-solving topic for the day. Next, students spend 20 to 25 minutes working in pairs or small groups to solve problems.

After groups have worked out their solutions, the students compare and discuss them, illustrating their ideas on the chalkboard. During the final five minutes of the 50-minute class, the teacher sums up the day’s work and assigns 2 to 4 problems to be done outside of class.

Each day’s lesson, generally has only a single objective, but it is expected that this objective be thoroughly understood. The curriculum is intense and there is little repetition of material. However, during each math class, there is extensive discussion between teacher and students and among the students themselves. In this way, students are given every opportunity to understand each lesson. With regard to gender differences, the American educators noted no differences between boys and girls in either performance or attitude.

Japanese educators describe their approach to teaching mathematics in elementary and junior high schools as “open-ended”. Problems for which there is more than one correct solution or method for solving are stressed in order to develop mathematical reasoning skills. Although Japanese university professors overwhelmingly favor the use of calculators, no calculators were seen in elementary and junior high classes, and the use of calculators is not permitted in the high school entrance exam.

“Some Observations of Mathematics Teaching in Japanese Elementary and Junior High Schools” Arithmetic Teacher, October 1990, Volume 38, Number 2, p. 12-21

Published in ERN January/February 1991 Volume 4 Number 1


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