Why Japanese Math?

Do you know that math is for everyone and not just for aspiring astronauts? Pythagoras, an eponymous 6th century Greek mathematician of a math theory, invented a musical scale. Albrecht Dürer, a 16th century German engraver, incorporated math into his prints. La Sagrada Familia, created by Antoni Gaudi, a 19th century Spanish architect, is a mathematical masterpiece. Isabel Toledo, the Cuban designer of Michell Obama's inaugural outfit, used "organic geometry" to turn the simplest two dimensional shapes into vastly different forms that objects assume when worn. Baseball pitchers carefully calculate angles and velocity when they throw breaking balls. Math helps goalies estimate the trajectory of penalty kicks. These accomplished artists, architects and athletes used math to become successful in their fields.

Of the countries with populations of at least 10 million measured by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), Japan was placed 2nd in math and 1st in science. These results neither stem from rigorous academic standards nor are founded in its unforgiving exam culture. Japanese students understand that math is not all about algebra and geometry, but is a tool which opens many doors for their future careers. 

According to The Teaching Gap by James Stigler, there are distinctly American, European and Japanese ways of teaching. Japanese teaching focuses on teaching for conceptual understanding. Japanese math is based on problem solving and teaches how to invent solutions. Teachers provide a context for the lesson so that what follows has greater meaning than merely getting the correct answer on a worksheet. In Japan, students are not arithmetic geniuses but problem solvers. Only the sky is the limit!

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