Q. What is
the Kumon method?
Billed as the largest academic after-school program
in the world, this Japanese program is in 44 countries and has more than 1,500
outlets in the United States.
It's not really a tutoring service: Kumon is a
program of self-study on dozens of levels of math fundamentals. Kumon is built
on the three R's: Repetition, Reinforcement, and Retention. Its main philosophy
is that practice really does make perfect. The Kumon curriculum does not
necessarily dovetail with what a child on any given grade level is learning in
school, but the math skills that Kumon develops are of use at all grade levels
as the student progresses through school. So Kumon is complementary to
schooling, rather than supplementary.
In Kumon, which is year-round, a student will do
thousands of pages of simple worksheets on his or her own time over the several
years that the typical student attends Kumon. The parent checks the answers and
then once or twice a week, the student attends a session lasting a half-hour or
so at the Kumon outlet, where there is guidance and help available from an
But most of the work is done by the student, and that
is the hallmark of Kumon: independent learning.
It was founded by Japanese teacher Toru Kumon, who
developed the instructional method for his son, who was able to do calculus in
sixth grade. Even though Kumon study is common among the top-ranking students
in a high school class, Kumon doesn't claim to be for smart kids only. It
claims to be equally helpful for remedial students as for those who need math
enrichment, according to program officials.
Rather than drilling kids on the math facts or
promising to "fix" a student's math deficiencies, Kumon focuses on teaching
students how to approach math, using practice sheets that systematically cover
all the fundamental math skills in a logical progression, slowly but surely
cementing those skills in the student's academic repertoire.
While it is true that the Kumon student does
thousands of math problems at home during the typical six- or seven-year
involvement with Kumon, it's not really a "drill-and-kill" approach, as some
educators might believe.
The philosophy behind Kumon is that students are
better able to retain what they have learned if the math concepts that they
study are strategically built upon one another over the weeks, months and years
of an education. Math concepts should be learned systematically, in other
words. They are, in Kumon.
But in most public schools today, the philosophy is
"spiraling" - teaching a little bit about each math concept each year of
school, returning to that particular concept over and over again over the years
- but never really letting the kids gain permanence in their math knowledge
base, or mastery over the individual skills.
The criticism of "whole math" with its spiraling is
that the students' math knowledge is too shallow to be of use when the going
gets tough, from algebra on.
Kumon locks in solid math skills through practicing
every day and repeating the problems with subtle variations and very gradual
advancement. The key is that the planned repetitions create "automaticity" in
the student. That means the math operations are so ingrained after all that
strategic practice that the student doesn't get bogged down in applying basic
math to higher-level math, such as algebra and geometry.
The goal with Kumon is to have the student ready to
excel in algebra by fifth grade, and to be prepared for the higher-level math
on the college admissions tests which come up in the sophomore and junior year.
Kumon has added a reading component in recent years.