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The Kumon Method: Self-Learning at Own Pace

By: Kathy Diener

Date Posted: 2001-02-09

In classrooms throughout the world, 20 to 30 students of roughly the same age sit side by side, studying the same page of the same workbook. Most students are categorized as “average.” A few complete the assignment early and sit idly, waiting for their classmates to finish; they may be called “gifted.” The rest struggle to keep up with their peers or just give up because the material is too difficult for them. These children are often labeled “slow” or “challenged” and perhaps put into remedial classes.

Not so in a Kumon classroom. Here one is likely to find a fifteen-year-old high school student performing differential equations sitting beside a six-year-old who’s learning long division, while across the table a three-year-old practices writing the alphabet. If the student doesn’t complete the lesson accurately within a certain amount of time, he reviews and tries it again.

“Kumon philosophy is that children are not responsible for having difficulty in learning,” says Ryochi Suemane, director of the Okinawa regional Kumon office in Naha. “It is the materials that are important.” If students are allowed to work at a comfortable level for a reasonable amount of time, he says, they will have little difficulty in making the transition to the next level.

The Kumon method uses a self-learning approach in which the student sets the pace according to his own abilities. “A teacher-directed approach can be very effective,” Suemane says, “if the teacher-student ratio is one-to-one. This is not usually possible.” The Kumon approach, he says, is more conducive to learning and builds the student’s confidence through repeated successes.

The method is named for its creator, Toru Kumon, a high school math teacher. In 1954, he devised a series of worksheets for his son who was struggling with second grade arithmetic. Kumon believed that repetition and gradual advancement would lead to competence in performing calculations, which would in turn develop the child’s ability of application. By the time his son reached junior high school, he was performing arithmetic at the 11th grade level. Kumon eventually expanded the materials to include English for Japanese students and Japanese for native speakers.

The materials are constantly being reviewed and revised to meet the students’ needs. Currently they consist of more than 5,000 worksheets in each of the three subjects. The worksheets are divided into 200-page units that range from first grade to university levels. Each page is designed to be more difficult than the previous one, but the change is so slight that the students don’t notice it. Thus they should be able to make the transition from one step to the next with very little difficulty. Progress is measured in the amount of time it takes the student to complete a certain amount of material with 100 percent accuracy.

Since the first Kumon school opened in Osaka, the method has gained proponents worldwide. There are now Kumon classrooms in 50 countries, including Canada, England, Germany, Korea, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and the United States, where several public school systems have adopted the Kumon method for teaching mathematics. Japan has a total enrollment of 1.5 million. In Okinawa alone there are 13,000 to 14,000 students studying up to three subjects each.

Tatsuko Nakada is the owner of the Kumon Institute of Education in Ginowan, one of Okinawa’s 300 franchised Kumon classrooms. Nakada has been a Kumon instructor for 21 years and currently has 500 students enrolled. A certified teacher, she says she chose the Kumon method over traditional classroom instruction because she felt it was the best approach for the student.

“There are so many different levels of ability among students,” Nakada says. “And children can learn so easily if they have the right circumstances.”

Most Kumon classrooms are open four days a week. Students take an initial diagnostic test to determine their appropriate level. They attend class twice a week and spend 30 minutes to an hour on each subject. Classes are generally larger than traditional schools, with as many as 40 students studying at one time. Teachers monitor the students’ progress and assign daily homework based on their demonstrated ability.

The students aren’t the only ones who are learning. There is no prerequisite for becoming an instructor, but all teachers undergo six months to 1½ years of Kumon education before entering the classroom. Even after their initial training is complete, Nakada says, teachers are constantly studying. “I am always studying, in the classroom, at home, even on airplanes,” she says.

Most Kumon students are able to handle materials at or above their actual school grade level. There are also a number of exceptional performers, including a five-year-old girl who has completed high school level calculus and a 21-month-old girl who is studying basic math. However, Suemane argues that comparisons between Kumon students and their public school peers miss the point.

“The purpose is not to get high scores,” he says. “The purpose is to expand the student’s ability. As their ability grows, so does their confidence and love of learning.”

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