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Topic: Thoughts on Japanese Maths. Teaching
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Thoughts on Japanese Maths. Teaching
Posted: Jan 27, 2000 11:35 AM
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From the AMTE listserve ... January 26, 2000 -- in what follows,
Stephen Sproule wrote to the listserve, and Tad Watanabe responded to it.

A few thoughts about Japanese mathematics teaching practices:

Stephen Sproule wrote:

> It is noticeable that in the 8th grade (and too a lesser degree in
> the 12th grade class) Japanese class the teacher has a very rigid
> preconceived idea of what answers he is wanting. He had
> predesigned paper labels with various properties of parallelograms
> stated on them. As the students worked on investigating the
> properties of a parallelogram he walked amongst them. He only
> chose students to share their ideas if they matched with his labels.
> We know, from the video, nothing about the understanding of the
> other students.

Tad Watamabe responded:

Japanese secondary school teaching is very much different
from what you may observe in elementary schools. However,
the fact that the teacher had predesigned papers may also
suggest that Japanese teachers practice (and very good at)
anticipating students' thinking. About 3 years ago, I met a
Japanese math educator and he gave me a videotape of a fifth
grade teacher's lesson. He said this is one of the best
teachers he knew. I asked him why he considered this
teacher so highly. He said that's because of this teacher's
ability to anticipate his students' thinking. He said, if
you show the teacher a problem, he can predict with accuracy
how most of his children will solve the problem. In the
lesson on the video, he starts out the lesson by asking the
class what they did the day before (this seems to be pretty
typical in Japanese lessons). Then, he *asked the class*
what they wanted to study. He let his students talk, with
very little coming from the teacher. After a couple of
minutes, the class (and the teacher) agreed on what they
will do. Then, the teacher calmly pulled out a sheet of
paper with the day's objective as decided by the class
preprinted and put it on the board. I think this episode
shows me that the teacher is very good at anticipating
students' thinking *and* also very skillful in facilitating
(orchestrating?) the discussion.

It is also true that Japanese teachers walk around while
students work on problems and they often select who would go
up to the board. At least in elementary schools, teachers
often call on students who have incorrect answers to the
board, too. In fact, they seem to try to put as many
different solutions as possible so that the class can
critically analyze the solutions.

Stephen Sproule wrote:

> Many Japanese teachers say they can create engaging lessons
> and explore interesting mathematical questions more freely
> because their students are getting what is required for school
> leaving and university entrance exams at private after school
> classes. You may notice how well constructed some of the
> students' answers were in the video. Invariably they have seen the
> ideas at after school classes and now bring a fairly narrow view into
> the classroom as a starting point. I would say most teachers would
> enjoy teaching a group of students who already had a starting point
> for the day's work?

Tad Watanabe responded:

Although after school private classes (juku's) are common, I
don't think the percentage of students who attend them is
near 100%. In fact, there are so many different types
of juku's that it would be difficult to get a good grip on
this statistics, I think.

I also had a chance to talk with a group of math teachers at
a very good high school when I was in Japan 3 years ago, and
one thing they told me was that they emphasized how to write
good solutions. So, it is something high school teachers
(at least at that particular school) try to teach, although
it may still be a "fairly narrow view."

I also think Japanese teacher enjoy teaching a group of
students who already had a good starting point, but I don't
think it is necessarily for the day's lesson (assuming this
means students know good deal about the topic already).
Rather, I think Japanese elementary schools prepare students
very well to be good students - how to participate in class
discussion, how to present their ideas to the whole class in
writing or orally, etc.

Stephen Sproule wrote:

> It was very interesting to note the 8th grade US teacher's lesson.
> There has been much criticism of this lesson and much could be
> done to improve the lesson. However what I have not seen raised is
> the nature of the worksheet he handed out to the students. This
> came from a published source. ...

Tad Watanabe responded:

One thing I noticed about elementary school curriculum
materials from Japan is that they do not use many
worksheets. They emphasize students actually writing in
their own notebooks much more, even in the first grade.
Now, this may have much to do with the language structure.
In Japanese, there is a set of basic characters which are
sound-based (phonemic???). Once children learn these
characters, they can write anything they say because
"spelling" is very consistent. They continue to learn
Chinese characters but they are not necessarily needed to
express your ideas.

I noticed that even "reform" curricula in the US make a very
heavy use of worksheets, though the nature of their
worksheets is very much different from what mainline
publishers' series often include.

Tad Watanabe further comments:

We really don't know much about the role of "juku" in
Japanese education. Yes, there are juku's whose primary
purpose is to prepare their students for college (and
sometimg HS and Jr. HS) entrance exams. But, there are
other types of juku's. Some are there to help those
students who may be struggling to keep up (or already
behind). Others are more "enrichment" type, including
abacus and caligraphy schools, which are semi-academic.
Moreover, do we really know juku's teaching is "pure
drill-and-kill"? My own limited experiences (and much too
long ago) were not the type of worksheets after


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


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