The Math Paradox

What Japan Wants to Learn From the West

When it comes to teaching math and science, is the grass always greener across the Pacific Ocean?

“I’m working with educators to help prevent students from hating math before they even know what it is.”
Last July, a team of US students edged out teams from China and South Korea to take first place in the 2015 International Math Olympiad—their first win in 21 years. Japan, considered by many to be a country that is almost naturally good at math, didn’t even place in the competition. In fact, an increasing number of Japanese educators believe that they are in the midst of a math motivation crisis. And they’re looking to the West for pedagogical inspiration.

In contrast, the most recent PISA rankings clearly demonstrate that Asian countries have been outperforming Western nations in math over the past decade, with the top seven countries all in Asia—including Japan. As a result, some Western educators have begun to import Asian approaches to learning math.

talking over an answer

It’s a paradox.

In Japan, as in China, high school and university entrance examinations are extremely competitive, with only a few points determining whether students are accepted into their schools of choice. Because of this, the education system is heavily focused on prepping students to garner the best test scores possible—and not necessarily helping them to develop the skills they will find practical later in life.

Japan’s math curriculum, specifically, is notorious for being rigorous and dense, with science programs also being extremely demanding. To keep up with this hectic schedule, 70% of Japanese students attend juku—cram school—after their regular classes end each day. However, the juku curriculum—just like that found in regular schools—is not designed to ready students for a future career, but merely to raise exam scores in the short term.

. . . math, technology and logic skills will be essential not only for a career in coding, but also in healthcare, business and many other skilled fields.

In a recent edition of the Japanese-language Nikkei—the world’s largest financial newspaper—editors posited that unless educational trends change, Japan’s workforce is going to be left behind those of Western countries in terms of the key skills needed to develop strong industries in the future. (Nikkei 20 Jan. 2016, Morning ed.)

What’s a teacher to do?

Kawazoe isn’t alone in his approach. Says Professor Tairo Nomura of Japan’s Saitama University, “To a certain extent, teachers should be responsible for the fact that students are losing interest in science.” (Nikkei 20 Jan. 2016, Morning ed.) Added Nomura, who teaches at the university’s STEM Education Research Center, “I’m working with educators to help prevent students from hating math before they even know what it is.”

Larger scale changes are happening as well. In 2020, Japan’s antiquated university entrance examinations will be transformed with a new entrance system that will emphasize active learning and creativity.

In China, too, a stronger emphasis is being placed on fostering a nation of creative, flexible thinkers—not just rosters of students who can score well on tests. In the past decade, the Chinese government has pursued numerous projects with the goal of increasing access to high quality education and promoting creative thinking in schools. Initiatives range from the micro-sized China-UK Math Teacher Exchange Program to the macro National Plan for Medium and Long term Education Reform and Development.

Thinking forward.

At Sony Global Education, we are committed to preparing students everywhere for a future that may be very different from what we imagine today. We have defined Five Thinking Strategies, the critical thinking skills that we believe will be crucial for careers in all STEM fields. These fluid strategies can strengthen learners’ abilities to think about math problems both thoroughly and flexibly. The Five Thinking Strategies are:

  • Step: Following the logical steps to the answer.
  • Reverse:  Starting from what you think the answer might be
  • Create: Changing the question to give yourself a fresh approach
  • Knock: Keep trying different approaches until the answer reveals itself
  • Scan: Summarize information and classify what is important and what isn’t

Each strategy highlights a different possible route a student can take to solve a problem. No one route is necessarily better than another, but knowing when to apply what approach can help young learners get to the ‘Aha!’ moment that much more quickly.

The education system in Japan—and in much of Asia—is in transition, one that will ensure that students have the skills they need for our ever-evolving society. Forward-thinking educators will need to find and develop content that can be used across subject lines; math, technology and logic skills will be essential not only for a career in coding, but also in healthcare, business and many other skilled fields.

And in classrooms on both sides of the Pacific, the well-worn subject labels of “math”, “technology”, etc. may themselves soon be in transition and—eventually—become obsolete.

A version of this article originally appeared in Edsurge, February 2016.