How Japanese Students Learn Math ; Teachers Get Good Results with Group Work, Problem-Solving Approaches

Article excerpt

A group of ninth-grade students are devising a formula for calculating the area of a stretch of winding road, and throughout the 50-minute period they remain intent on their task. They produce several possible solutions and reason them through until the principle behind the challenge is clear. At class's end, some students linger for more problem solving.

It's a typical slice of everyday life at this Japanese public school, run by the Japanese government for families living in the United States. It's also one of many practices that teachers in Paterson, N.J., are taking in, intent on boosting their school's math performance. (See story, left.)

In international tests, Japanese students outperform US students in math skills and concepts. Despite cultural differences, many educators insist that there is much US teachers could learn from how they learn.

"There are a lot of really important ideas out there," says Catherine Lewis, a member of the education department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who studies comparative methods of education. "Many of them come from Japan."

The Japanese work with a national math curriculum, one often described as carefully thought out, tightly woven, and neatly linked from grade level to grade level. It homes in on fewer concepts than US curricula, but helps students more fully absorb these.

But the Japanese edge in math education extends beyond curricular issues. James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA, and James Hiebert, professor of education at the University of Delaware in Newark, studied tapes of eighth-grade math lessons in US, German, and Japanese classrooms that were produced as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in the mid-1990s. They concluded in their book "The Learning Gap," that US and Japanese teachers had markedly different styles. US math classes tend to begin with an explanation by the teacher, followed by the students working on their own at related problems. Japanese teachers generally start by tossing out a problem and requiring students to grapple with it, often in groups. …