Japanese Mathematics Education: What Makes It Work?

By Reys, Barbara J.; Reys, Robert E. | Teaching Children Mathematics, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Japanese Mathematics Education: What Makes It Work?


Reys, Barbara J., Reys, Robert E., Teaching Children Mathematics


Japan's stature as an economic and political power worldwide has caused growing interest in the country's culture and, more specifically, its system of educating its youth. International comparisons of mathematics achievement highlight Japanese students' unquestioned superiority in mathematical performance. Factors that contribute to the relatively high performance include the nature of Japanese schools, the professional stature of teachers, the homogeneity of the school population, the high parental expectations for the educational success of their children, the abundance of jukus (special cram schools), and heavy reliance on entrance and qualifying examinations. These factors together produce a unique educational setting. Japanese schools have been characterized elsewhere (Stigler, Lee, and Stevenson 1990; Stevenson 1991). Our discussion in this article is not to judge relative strengths or weaknesses of Japanese education but rather to point out a factor rarely discussed, which we believe contributes greatly to the different performance levels in Japan and the United States. Our discussion is based on the experience of one of our children, Rustin, who attended a Japanese elementary school for one year, in the second half of second grade and the first half of third grade.

How do Japanese teachers spend the time allotted to mathematics in the school day? This decision is influenced by how time is spent at home on mathematics homework, which the Japanese define differently than we do in the United States. Whereas we define homework as a specifically assigned set of problems and exercises that review the work begun in class, in Japan, homework is work done at home but not necessarily a predetermined set of exercises assigned by the teacher. Rather, it is work done under the parents' direction, usually the mother's, which builds on, supplements, reviews, or at times is unrelated to, the material presented in class on a given day.

The Japanese elementary mathematics class period generally comprises what we would call "development" (Stevenson 1991). That is, the teacher presents new content and develops the ideas and concepts through rich examples, applications, and model building. It is not unusual for a mathematics period to revolve around a few carefully selected problems about which the teacher and students actively engage in exchanging ideas. A review of skills, as we know it, is relegated to homework rather than allotted time within the mathematics class period. Therefore, within a typical forty-five-minute class period, the Japanese teacher does what he or she was trained to do - deliver instruction - by introducing mathematical ideas and concepts and extending the development of each student's thinking. Once the child goes home, the Japanese parent, with minimal or no training, monitors skill development.

For example, multiplication was introduced and developed halfway through the second grade. Over several weeks, the teacher presented different problem situations involving multiplication and introduced several models. Whereas developmental experiences occurred at school, the parent was expected to help children practice the multiplication facts at home. …

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