Self-learning: How Kumon teaches students to teach themselves

The concept of self-learning fascinated Toru Kumon, Kumon’s late founder, throughout his entire life – even when he was a young boy. This interest catalysed when he was a fifth grader in elementary school after his maths teacher informed the class that if they were able to learn from the textbook on their own, they could advance. Toru felt happy to be able to study at his own pace and did so enthusiastically.

Mr Kumon later moved to Tosa Junior High School (equivalent to lower secondary) and was similarly exposed to a self-learning method, where the teacher taught only the basics and expected students to learn by themselves.

‘This method suited me very well. If I advanced beyond the school grade level, I would have an easy time studying in school. In addition, I didn’t like to be forced into studying or to have to listen to teachers’ lectures, so an educational policy which encourages students to learn what they liked at their own pace by themselves was just right for me.’

‘From this time forward I began to think that all the other schools should adopt this policy of achieving the greatest result with the least amount of effort, so their students can enjoy their school life more,’ Toru Kumon wrote in his autobiography Give it a try – Yattemiyo.

However, in both instances, the schools’ attempts to introduce self-learning were short-lived. Mr Kumon felt this happened because were no learning materials or appropriate methods for keeping up-to-date with students’ progress.

Mr Kumon went on to become a mathematics teacher at the very same high school he attended as an adolescent, and his strong belief in self-learning’s efficacy guided his teaching practice. His teaching was highly beneficial for students, and he would often take the time to help students with their studies after class. The overwhelming majority of the students he helped this way were able to reach senior high school level mathematics within a year.

Furthermore, Mr Kumon’s passion for helping children learn how to teach themselves led to the creation of the very first Kumon worksheets, which he trialed on his son Takeshi Kumon. After seeing how these worksheets helped his son, Toru used these worksheets to help other students.

‘For children to make progress, it is more effective to meet their desire to grow rather than for adults to force them to advance by cramming everything into their heads. There is a limit to how much you can force a child to study but the potential for growth through self-learning is endless. All children intrinsically want to develop their abilities and they all have the potential to do so. Responding to these desires, thus helping them grow without limits, not only makes the children and their parents happy but is essential for society,’ Toru wrote in Yamabiko in 1983.

Children’s own desire to grow is precisely what informs Kumon’s self-learning methodology. Instructors do not teach students in a uniform manner. Instead, examples, explanations and hints are provided in the worksheets. Students learn from these examples and attempt the questions on their own, under the watchful eyes of the Kumon Instructor, who guide the students when necessary.

But all the aforementioned are the abilities of long-term Kumon students. You, as parents, may be asking yourself how does Kumon develop the first steps of a long-term self-learning habit?

Atsushi Yamada, president of Kumon Asia & Oceania, explains that Instructors provide more guidance to newly enrolled students than to students who have been studying Kumon for a while. He says this guidance’s’ ultimate end goal is to develop students who are able, and who want to, study on their own.

‘Of course, when children first study with Kumon, it is difficult for them to do the worksheets by themselves. That is why Instructors have to provide appropriate guidance in their initial period, and ultimately, nurture them to become children who are able to learn independently and stretch their abilities further on their own,’ wrote Mr Yamada (President’s Message to Instructors, 2018).

As students grow in Kumon, their abilities grow as well and with time, they will be able to study independently. With students learning independently it is then possible for every child to progress as fast as they can at their own pace. This way, Kumon students are not held back because of age, or pushed to advance without having fully understood the concepts simply to keep up with the rest of the class. Instead, they advance only when they are ready. This will be explored further in the next issue of Potential.

Kumon was founded 60 years ago, and all through this time self-learning has remained as a central tenet. This has allowed Instructors to push the potential of each child to the fullest, not just in maths but in other subjects as well.

As Mr Kumon once wrote in The Strengths of the Kumon Method, ‘The Kumon Method enables students to advance beyond school grade level. The worksheets are well-organised; therefore this is also true in the cases of students with special needs. Children gain self-confidence and achieve an advanced level of competency, which enable them to excel in high school. Advancing beyond grade level is what is most beneficial for children. The Kumon Method has not been used solely to teach maths. Students have been able to experience self-learning and acquire the skills for self-learning through their study of maths.’

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