Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

Japanese Math Textbooks: Less Is More

CJ Westerberg, July 6, 2010 2:54 PM


"Perhaps the first reaction one gets when looking at Japanese math textbooks is that they are thin, lightweight paperbacks with colorful cartoon illustrations. The total number of pages ranges from 120 to 210 per grade level.

This is vastly different from the 500 to 600+ pages found in typical, heavy U.S. textbooks. . . This embodies the Japanese philosophy of teaching a few important math topics per year in depth instead of what is typically done in the U.S. --  teaching many topics per year superficially."

A Math Teacher's Travel Journal To Japan

By Bill Jackson
Day 6

Today we visited the offices of Tokyo Shoseki, the largest textbook company in Japan. In the morning we received an overview of Japanese mathematics textbooks by Mr. Toshinari Ogasawara, Chief Editor of the mathematics textbook department. I will try to sum up some of the main points of his presentation below.

There are six major math textbooks in Japan. These textbooks are very similar. According to Mr. Ogasawara, this is due to the fact that the other companies have copied Tokyo Shoseki's textbooks because of their coherence and excellent sequencing. These textbooks were written based on lesson study findings. Textbook company executives attend large lesson study open houses in Japan and also consult many published lesson research lesson findings to learn what to incorporate into their textbooks. This is one reason why Tokyo Shoseki's mathematics textbooks are the most widely used math textbooks in Japan.

Several years ago, a new subject called "integrated studies" was added to the Japanese curriculum. In addition, Saturday school was eliminated. Therefore, the number of class hours per year dedicated to mathematics teaching was reduced. Now, 1st graders spend 114 hours, 2nd graders 155 hours, and 3rd through 6th graders 150 hours in math classes per year respectively (1 hour = one 45 min. lesson). Japanese students generally have math class 3 to 4 times per week, depending on the grade level. As a result, textbook companies had to reduce the content of the math textbooks and move certain topics into higher grades. This has created somewhat of an outcry among Japanese educators and because of that, the Ministry of Education is revising the curriculum to possibly include more hours of mathematics in the near future.

Perhaps the first reaction one gets when looking at Japanese math textbooks is that they are thin, lightweight paperbacks with colorful cartoon illustrations. The total number of pages ranges from 120 to 210 per grade level. This is vastly different from the 500 to 600+ pages found in typical, heavy U.S. textbooks. (I couldn't help thinking that if for some reason the number of hours devoted to math education were reduced in the U.S., we wouldn't bother reducing the content.) This embodies the Japanese philosophy of teaching a few important math topics per year in depth instead of what is typically done in the U.S. --  teaching many topics per year superficially. Japanese textbooks are also inexpensive and they are given to the children to keep. We saw many instances at the schools we have visited of kids writing in their textbook, something unheard of in the U.S. (unless they're writing graffiti!)

Another characteristic of Japanese elementary math textbooks is that they are designed so teachers can teach the subject without having any special knowledge. Elementary school teachers in Japan typically teach every subject (except gym, art, music, etc.) so they are generalists, not specialists. Teacher's guides for the textbook offer suggestions on how to teach each lesson based on the results of actual research lessons. Examples are given of questions that may be asked by students according to various stages of learning as well as helpful hints on how to deal with these questions and typical student responses and errors. They even include diagrams on how to organize the chalkboard.

As noted above, Japanese textbooks have many pictures and colorful, cartoon illustrations. These illustrations, however, have a purpose and are not just for show as is often seen in U.S. elementary textbooks. In Tokyo Shoseki's textbook, there is friendly cartoon space creature who gives helpful hints or states important mathematical ideas. This makes the textbooks very child friendly. Instead of statements like "solve the problem below," Japanese textbooks say "Let's solve the problem below," reflecting the philosophy of whole class, student-centered problem solving.

In the past, math teaching in Japan focused on implementing knowledge thoroughly by direct instruction ("cramming" was the word Mr. Ogasawara actually used.)  In recent years, however, the focus has shifted to having students understand the process of solving a problem by thinking for themselves. Therefore, Japanese textbooks focus much on problem solving and having students find various solution methods as well as analyzing the merits of each method.

An example that was shared was a page from the 6th grade textbook that showed pictures of three students finding the area of a trapezoid by transforming it in different ways.  The teacher's guide also offers various other possibilities students might try. I think that this type of approach is largely absent in most U.S. math textbooks (in fact, all the ones I've ever seen!)

Textbooks are revised every three to four years in Japan, but before they begin the revision process, the textbook company surveys up to 2000 university scholars and teachers to ask for ideas on how to improve the textbooks. These ideas are then incorporated into the new version. This is very important because Japanese mathematics textbooks tend to improve slowly over time reflecting the philosophy of continually polishing and improving upon what has been learned. Different U.S. textbooks tend to offer radically different approaches and tend to "throw out the baby with the bath water" (at least that's this particular author's opinion). It seems to me that we don't share this idea that improving math teaching and learning is a long-term process based on the results of actual classroom research.

Domo (which basically can mean anything from hi to bye to thanks and just about anything else --  good word to know if don't know what to say!)

Bill Jackson


For more on Jackson's Travel Journal to Japan:
Day 1 & 2:  What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan
Day 3 & 4:   A Global Perspective on Teacher Assessment & Development
Day 5:        The Whole Child - Developing Creative Talents, Not Just Academic Skills
Day 6:     Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not.   Understanding Students.
Day 8:       How Teachers Learn Through Lesson Study - What Our Global Japan and Singapore
                             Neighbors Use for Teacher Professional Development

Part 1:   Singapore Math  --   Demystified!   
Part 2:  Can Solving Problems Unravel Our Fear Of Math?
               The Singapore Math Program philosophy - Problem-based, concrete-pictorial-   abstract approach
Part 3:  Singapore Math:  Is this the most Visual Math?  The Signature Bar Modeling Method
Part 4:     How To Bring Singapore Math to Your School

Also:  Check out Bill Jackson's recent Travel Journal To Singapore:
 Day 1    Five Surprises in Singaporean Education



Editor's Note:    Bill Jackson is Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale NY Public Schools, one of the highest performing school districts in the country. 

If you missed his series on "Singapore Math Demystified!" published by The Daily Riff , we highly recommend you to check it out HERE.  We are delighted that Bill is sharing his wealth of knowledge through this series of journals from his 2007 trip to Japan.

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