Once upon a time there was a math teacher in Japan named Toru Kumon. Back in 1954, his son did badly on a math test in grade school. A conversation with Mrs. Kumon ensued that boiled down to “Well, what are you going to do about this?” So he opened up the son’s textbook. Dismayed by what he found, he decided that the best solution was a step by step approach that should fill in missing skills, solidify the basics, and eventually prepare his son (and other students) for the sort of math he was teaching in high school. He emphasized speed and accuracy. It worked so well that parents are willing to pay for his method to this very day.
A decade later, an American teacher named Seigfried Englemann — Zig for short — landed a position working with Head Start. He found that the best solution for teaching kids basic academic skills was a step by step approach that makes sure there are no missing skills, the basics are solid, grouping by ability, and speed. He was convinced that a failing classroom was caused by bad curriculum (or bad implementation of curriculum), not bad kids. Here’s video of kindergarteners doing math (and basic algebra!). Notice that the children are minorities, the caption says they are “at risk” students as well. Notice too that this video was filmed just a year after Lehrer sang “New Math.”
It seems like every decade some group of educators decide there’s a better way to teach math (and reading) and some other educator re-discovers that you can’t teach complicated things unless students understand the simpler things underneath them. The latest reform math movement has resulted in hilarious problems being posted online and lampooned on television. And that brings me to the latest salvo in the math education pissing contest, nicely summarized by Joanne Jacobs: one educator says reform math doesn’t work here in the states because teachers are poorly trained, and the proof is that Japanese kids are doing fine; some other educator points out that Japanese kids are learning actual math skills in classes outside of school (including using the methods of Kumon-Sensei).
A common criticism of the Old Ways That Worked is that “drill and kill bores kids.” Do the kids in Zig’s video look bored? No, I didn’t think so either. Maybe they mean “drill and kill bores teachers.”
In Closing: Another place where they’re changing the rules just about the time you think you understand them; mission creep; unintended consequences; on mostly not getting by in America these days; Amen; on American politics; the Middle East; Reality; on privacy, the Internet, and the hilarious new thing the NSA wants; and Cat Tricks.