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Students and prof examine why Japan outsmarts U.S. in math scores

Education Professor Nancy Drickey and students Amy Shoemaker ’09 and Marissa Davis ’09 headed to Japan to find out why Japanese teens outpace U.S. students in math and science.Last year’s research culminated in a recently released report.

The U.S. has pushed math and science education for years, but it still lags behind other industrialized countries in student test scores. In the most recent comprehensive study of eighth-grade students, conducted in 2007, the nation ranks only ninth out of 48 participating countries.

Japan, on the other hand, was ranked in the top five.

Why the difference?

Drickey, Davis and Shoemaker set out to examine trends and instructional methods used by math teachers in Japanese middle schools, comparing them to a similar study conducted in the U.S.

Their findings indicate that teachers in the U.S. emphasize active participation in class and encourage student collaboration on projects, while Japanese teachers focus much more on whole-group instruction with little interaction.

But Japanese teachers make up for the lack of class participation by incorporating more intellectual rigor in lessons, challenging — and expecting — their students to excel.

“There is something to be learned about setting standards and expectations,” Drickey said. “Japanese students expect to be held responsible for the material, they expect a quick pace, and they are charged with daily note-taking. U.S. teachers need to do more in setting expectations for students.”

That may be easier said than done. Japanese teachers experience fewer discipline problems, Drickey reports. “Students sit in rows and are expected to listen quietly. Teachers rely on direct instruction rather than investigative mathematics, but although they ask few questions, the questions they do ask are useful in guiding student understanding.”

The biggest surprise was a shocking lack of technology in Japanese classrooms. “Not a single student pulled out a calculator during class,” Drickey said. There were no overhead projectors, televisions, computers or laptops.

“But lack of reliance on technology may lead to higher scores for Japanese students,” she said. “The ability to think mathematically, without the aid of an outside source, could help students process mathematical problems more accurately and efficiently.”

Observations and interviews took place in 12 middle school classrooms in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The study included both private and public schools in Japan as opposed to a similar study of only public schools in the U.S., but test score differences between the two nations remain.

“The observations and interviews provide insight for American educators,” Drickey said. “They give us a greater understanding of what makes effective math instruction.”

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