Kumon is one of the most popular jukus (cram school, after school school, extra school, preparatory school) in Japan. There are currently about 18,400 centers across the country with close to 1,500,000 students. Kumon centers hire 15,700 instructors and over 40,000 assistants, all of whom are members of the local communities in which they serve. Kumon, however, is not limited to Japan and is enjoying popularity in over 44 countries, on all continents with the exception of Antarctica.
But just what is Kumon? The Kumon method was developed in 1954 by the late chairman Toru Kumon, when he was a high school math teacher. His wife asked him to oversee his eldest son’s arithmetic studies after he did uncharacteristically poor on a test. Kumon developed a series of worksheets that focused on the development of strong calculation skills and sought to have the student advance as directly as possible to high school mathematics. Young Takeshi Kumon started with multiplication in grade two and by grade six, he was doing differential and integral calculus. This was the result of concentrating on aspects that would develop high school level calculation skills while avoiding all the irrelevant concepts that were included in the school curriculum.
Toru Kumon recognized that the speed and phase of skill development differs among children. The Kumon method does not compare students with one another, but instead focuses on the abilities of the individual. Instruction corresponds to each child’s individual ability and attempts to bring out the best in each student.
Developing the ability to learn on one’s own
The worksheets have been carefully constructed to allow students to move along on their own. Students solve problems on their own and move ahead only when they are ready, as a result of their hard work. This doesn’t mean that instuction is completely eliminated. Kumon instructors act as guides and provide help when necessary. They assist the students in reaching their goals and provide encouragement and direction. However, the most important and effective motivation for most students is the realization that they can learn on their own. This usually leads them to seek greater challenges and progress faster.
The development of small step learning materials
The worksheets for each subject have been developed in such a way that the jump from one level to the next is not too great to be discouraging. The worksheets are a constant work in progress and with the feedback from thousands of students continue to be developed and improved. In this way, the students for whom these worksheets are written for, play an integral role in their improvement.
Currently Kumon is being utilized at a retirement home in Fukuoka. The simple calculation and reading aloud activities have proven effective for reducing degrees of senility. Kumon is also being used at a rehabilitation center for patients who have been severely impaired as the result of auto accidents or illness. This form of educational rehabilitation enables patients to become independent again while building their confidence and work skills so that they can reenter the working world. Finally, all employees at an automobile manufacturing plant in Porto Alegre, Brazil are required to study using the Kumon Method for at least two years upon entering the company. Many of them continue to study even after this initial period.
I have been attending a local Kumon for the last month and half. I really felt that my multiplication skills could use some improvement. Just kidding. The Kumon Center in Tokyo has developed a special course for foreigners learning Japanese. Every Monday and Thursday, I drive over to the next town, meet with Yuko, who is my instructor and hand over all the homework I have done. It is up to me how many worksheets I take with me and completely up to me finish however many of them as I want to. The school is open from 3-8pm and, again, I can stay as long or as short as I want to. In the time that I am there, Yuko will go over my homework with me, answer any questions I might have and drill me on new words or pronunciation. I am surrounded by kids from the local elementary, junior and senior high schools. There are even several kids from Ariake who are my students. They find it infinitely amusing to be my classmates rather than my students. I find the worksheets highly effective and my Japanese has improved dramatically in such a short time. I still have to spend a lot of time away from the Kumon Method, memorizing new vocabulary words (mostly because I am such a dolt and it takes countless tries to imprint anything on my memory), but my confidence and writing skills are well ahead of anyone that arrived at the same time as I did.
As for the kids that study English at Kumon, well, they tend to be the best students in each of my schools, at elementary and junior high school. I recently had a full conversation with a fifth grader, far more advanced than I could even dream of having with my oldest students at junior high. I was not in the least bit surprised when she told me she studied at Kumon.
Update: August, 2003: I have now been studying at Kumon for a little over 10 months and have mastered about 400 kanji and the basic I need to get by in day to day life in Japan. I am getting ready to sit the level 3 Japanese Proficiency Test in December.