Once upon a time there was a Japanese teacher named Toru Kumon who taught high school math. He became very concerned when his own son had difficulty doing his second grade arithmetic homework.
So the math teacher father designed a set of worksheets for his little boy to do every day after school, and the child began to excel. Soon neighbors began asking for copies, and their children also began to shine in math.
As a teacher, Kumon understood that a strong foundation in the basics was necessary for success in higher-level math. As a parent, he knew that he had to provide the tools and encouraging environment his son required for learning. By the time Kumon’s son was in the sixth grade, he was competently solving differential equations and integral calculus problems.
What started as a father’s method of helping his child with his schoolwork in 1954 has grown into the largest math and reading supplemental education program in the world. In 2002, there were Kumon Math and Reading Centers in 44 countries, with a total enrollment of more than three million students. It’s an individualized program that focuses on independent learning.
“It’s not a traditional one-on-one tutoring program,” explains Nancy Perkins, Ph.D., a Kumon instructor in Bellevue. “The children learn through self-discovery. By mastering a core skill and building on it in little baby steps, they teach themselves.”
“The program has been so successful because it is so well planned,” adds her husband, Bill, who is also a certified Kumon instructor. “The math problems are in a specific – not random – order. There is a lot of repetition and each child has his or her own individual repetition plan, based on Kumon research.”
This individual pace and self-teaching makes Kumon appropriate for preschoolers through high schoolers – for students who need to catch up and those who want to move ahead.
Toru Kumon believed that “learning occurs most efficiently when the level of materials being learned corresponds exactly to the student’s level of ability; when the rate of progress is determined by the student, not the teacher; and when the material being learned is organized into a naturally coherent, logical progression.”
How Kumon Works At first glance, Kumon materials do not look much different from the worksheets used in traditional classrooms. The difference, according to Nancy Perkins, is that Kumon uses a “progression of mastery” that is not present in the U.S. school curricula.
The Kumon curriculum is composed of multiple levels, with each level containing 200 worksheets. Each worksheet represents a short assignment arranged in very small steps, each getting a little more difficult than the preceding one.
“The materials themselves do the teaching,” explains Bill. “We’re here to help when a student gets stuck, of course, but we teach them to use all the clues provided in the work itself. That way, the student really learns the concept and has a tremendous feeling of achievement.”
Students don’t automatically start at the beginning of the series. They are first given a diagnostic test and the accuracy and time taken to complete the test are plotted on a graph. The graph pinpoints the appropriate starting place in the curriculum.
“Parents are often surprised that the starting point is lower than their perception of the child’s ability,” Bill notes. “The students we test almost always start lower than their grade level, because the Kumon philosophy is that kids learn best when presented with material they are comfortable with.”
According to Kumon information, starting at a lower level accomplishes four goals:
- It builds confidence because students experience immediate success and have a positive first reaction to the program.
- It helps establish a daily study routine. Students are required to complete a worksheet every day, and it’s easier to develop this habit when the work is not too difficult. Then, by the time the student advances to material that is challenging, the daily study habit is already established.
- A low starting point enables Kumon to build a strong foundation of basic skills before advancing to more complex work. For example, a child may know how to add or multiply, but can’t do the problems accurately or quickly; she may be able to write in journals, but is weak in spelling or grammar.
- It develops concentration, because children are better able to focus on work they enjoy than they are on work that is frustrating to them.
After a starting level has been determined, students work through each level at their own pace and advance only when they have mastered the material. Mastery is assessed in two areas – speed and accuracy. Every assignment is timed and graded, either at a center or at home by parents, and both scores are recorded.
“The worksheets have been carefully designed so that they can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes if the student has a good grasp of the material,” Bill explains. “In Kumon, speed equals competence, not just being in a hurry. That’s why we look at both accuracy and speed to determine whether a child is ready to move on to the next level.”
If a worksheet has too many errors or it took too long to complete, it may be assigned again. “This gives the student a chance to practice that particular skill again, and perhaps still again, and to improve each time,” explains Nancy. “It’s just like practicing the piano or shooting a basketball – but we aren’t used to thinking of academics this way in the United States.
“Parents ask us if the kids will get bored with all that repetition, and I ask them how many times the child has watched a favorite video and how many times they’ve read a certain book. Kids love repetition, and it definitely helps them learn,” she says.
Karen Oi, a Kumon instructor in Brentwood, also thinks the kids enjoy the process. She tells them “it’s kind of nice to know you’ve done something right every day” because the assignment isn’t finished until all the problems are corrected. “They like that,” she adds.
The age of the child, the reason for doing Kumon (remedial or enrichment) and the number of other activities they’re involved in all play a role in whether or not the child likes Kumon, Oi and Nancy agree.
For All Kinds of Students Carolyn Hutsell, whose third and fourth grade sons have attended Kumon for two years, says they’ve gone through stages. “They didn’t like it at all at first,” she says. “It was a struggle. They kept asking why they had to do it.
“Then when school started this year, they both tested higher than grade level in math,” Hutsell continues. “They thought that was pretty cool. They really like that math and reading are easy for them, and they like being at the top of their class. They’re very proud of their accomplishments, so now they don’t mind doing their Kumon work. In fact, my older son gets up and does his Kumon every morning before breakfast. It’s just a habit.”
Hutsell sees the self-discipline it takes to do the program as an added benefit – a skill of its own. “Since my children were both fairly good students, I probably wouldn’t have gone looking for an enrichment course if I hadn’t known the Perkins. But now I see so many positive results, I’m very happy we got involved,” she says.
Her initial reason for starting Kumon was because she didn’t want her young sons to develop a fear of math, a sentiment echoed by many moms.
Pat Smith enrolled her daughter “because she was lacking confidence in math, and I didn’t want her to grow up to be like me – also lacking confidence. I’m working on my budget at work right now and I keep second-guessing myself. I don’t want my daughter to be like that.”
Currently in her last year of middle school, Smith’s daughter started Kumon below grade level but in just five months has almost worked her way up to the eighth grade algebra she’s doing in school. Smith calls her daughter’s progress “not fast, but solid.” She sees this as necessary preparation for high school, but says her daughter just thinks Kumon is extra work. “It’s 20 to 40 minutes of extra homework every day,” Smith explains, “and that’s time she’d rather spend doing something else. At this age, it’s hard to see the benefits down the road.”
Both parents think that Kumon is worth the tuition cost, which in Middle Tennessee ranges from about $90 to $100 a month. The initial diagnostic test is free, and can be scheduled by calling the Kumon Center nearest you. You can also find more information at the international website, www.kumon.com.
Nancy Brown is a freelance writer and mom to a second grader and a seventh grader.