Test Drive

The repetition and daily drills practiced in Kumon can hone your math skillsReading, ’Rithmetic – and Repetition‘The Kumon Way’ Focuses on Mastering the Basics

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

It’s a question for the 21st century: Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

After taking (but not finishing) a timed 15-minute placement test at Tallahassee’s Kumon Center on Mahan Drive, there was my answer writ large: No. Heck no. At least, not when it comes to math.

According to Certified Kumon Instructor Wendy Barber, I was stymied by two-digit multiplication and division – third-grade math. In other words, girlfriend doesn’t know her times tables.

Kumon is an after-school math and reading program named after the Japanese teacher who started it 50 years ago when he created sets of math problems for his son. Tallahassee’s first Kumon center opened in March 2007. The company, now worldwide, calls it a “unique learning method” but, from the outside, it looks very old school.

At the center of the program are two-sided, 8¼-by-5¾-inch worksheets. They’re drills, pure and simple. At each math level, students are expected to complete 200 of them, each within a prescribed time – and with a near perfect score. There are 21 levels, developing skills from preschool counting to college-level differential equations.

But aren’t worksheets rote learning used by lazy educators?

“I wouldn’t call it rote learning – we believe in daily practice and we believe in repetition,” says Barber, who was a teacher and administrator in Tallahassee for 24 years. “That’s how you learn any skill: practice, practice, practice.”

My 11th-grader gave a great big thumbs-down to being the subject for this test (a very common reaction from high-schoolers, Barber says; the vast majority of her clientele is preschool- and elementary-age), which is how I came to be sitting in the Kumon center scratching my head over two-digit multiplication.

After being put firmly in my third-grade place, Barber sent me home with two weeks’ worth of worksheets – featuring first-grade addition and subtraction problems – which illustrates two important Kumon practices.

The first is daily homework. Every day. No weekends off. No summer vacations. The program is paced so that each day’s work should take no more than 20 to 30 minutes. And Kumon very purposefully starts students off at a level lower than their current achievement so they can quickly breeze through the easier problems at the beginning.

Students come to the Kumon center twice a week – on Mondays and Thursdays for about half an hour between 3:30 and 7 p.m. – to turn in their homework, work problems, make corrections and take placement tests, if necessary.

There’s a parental waiting area at the center, but the actual homework center is strictly a No Parent Zone. Although it is filled with youngsters, the only sounds are pencil-scratching, page-flipping and the occasional hushed conversation between one of the instructors and the students. Junior Kumon children work in small groups with instructors; older students are completely self-directed. After homework is graded, students are expected to figure out and correct any mistakes on their own – it’s the “Kumon way,” Barber says.

For me, doing the sheets was one more thing added to a busy day and very repetitious. But once I got started, it was almost mesmerizing to work the simple problems and see my speed improve. And, as my coworkers will attest, I was very annoyed at being interrupted when I was on a roll.

There were subtle things about the worksheets’ format, designed to help develop speed and accuracy. For one thing, the equations were in a horizontal, rather than vertical, format. The better to avoid “crutches” that slow you down, Barber explains, such as finger counting, carryovers and cross-outs. It’s much better, she says, to learn how to “hold it in your head.”

I got a 99 percent on my first addition/subtraction test (I was perhaps the first subject to ever take the test wearing reading glasses), but it took me seven minutes to complete, too slow to make the top level. After 10 days of homework, I took the test again, missed two problems, but shaved two and a half minutes off the testing time. I placed in the top group and was pronounced ready to move on.

Three-digit addition, here I come.

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