Wednesday, October 24, 2007

KUMON: How and why it works for us

[Crossposted at My Two Cents]

(Note: I haven't been able to post for this month's theme or for the Kids' Food Festival. Things are sorta crazy at my end, so please bear with me. I read all the posts, but don't get to comment on all of them for the same reason.)

Some time back I wrote a post on how parents sometimes push their kids unnecessarily to achieve academic excellence. In that post, I also mentioned KUMON - a chain of individually owned math and reading learning centers. One reader left a link in the comment section for an article that discusses a few drawbacks of the KUMON way of teaching math. I read that whole article twice - I swear! I agree with parts of it and there are parts (regarding trigonometry and calculus etc.) that we haven't gone through yet so those don't apply to us. Yet. I highly recommend that you read this article if you are thinking about signing up your kid(s) at KUMON. I am not going to discuss the article here. I am merely writing what works for us in the KUMON method. I am not saying it will, or should, work for other parents too. Every kid is different and what works for S might not work even for M, a few years from now. So, please take everything I am going to write with a grain of salt. Research the options out for yourself and then decide.

S started KUMON math program in August 2003, just before she started Kindergarten. I came to know about it through a friend who sent her son to a center for a brief time. S was a quiet kid from the beginning and we thought being good at something, like math, will give her self-esteem a boost. In the long term, we HAVE been proven correct. Also, I had heard that due to various factors, girls here lose interest in math and sience by the time they get to middle school. I was determined to prevent that from happening to my daughter. I wasn't going to let math become a "monster" to be afraid of. So, this is why our KUMON journey started.

Soon after she started, S began struggling with the homeworks. She would do all correctly, but would take 45 minutes or more to complete each homework. We began worrying if we pushed her in it too early because there is no way 45 minutes of homework is going to be good for a 5 year old. Thankfully, the owner of the franchise that S attended agreed with us. She said it should only take a child 5-7 minutes per homework, and no more than 10-12 minutes even if they take too long. So she reduced the number of pages that S was getting per homework. Once the load decreased, S also began taking more interest in doing her homework again. So, it has been this way ever since - we reduce the number of pages in her homework if she starts taking too long to finish and slowly increase it again once she finds a balance.

Another thing we always made sure of was to never push S into finishing a level fast. We let her take her own time and even let her repeat a level if she takes too long in that level's test (the objective is to complete one page in 1-3 minutes). After all, she is the one who will benefit if she masters the concepts at one level before advancing to the next one. Also, having to repeat a level has never been associated with failure in Kay household. It just indicates that some more time is needed to master the concepts. We do, however, try positive reinforcement to keep her motivated. So, every time S completes a level at KUMON, she gets to buy a board game or a book of upto $15 dollars in value. We are very rigid in enforcing the "board game or book" part. No soft toys, no video games or anything of that sort. She really looks forward to these opportunities. She only gets this gift if she has finished the level for good and doesn't have to repeat it. There are no penalties for repeating a level except that she has to wait longer to buy her gift.

Every year, when we mention that S is in the KUMON math program, her teachers ask us the same questions. How do we keep her interested (because it does tend to get repititive)? And since she is clearly ahead of grade level in math, how do we keep her interested in school work? For the first question, our answer is "Because we never gave her an option. KUMON homeworks are not optional, and she knows that. And, since she can herself see the progress she is making, she willingly does it now." As for the second question, we have noticed that the math that she learns at school is usually complementary to the math she does at KUMON. So, since KUMON math program doesn't really have many word-problems, the school curriculum helps her practice that part. KUMON math does not cover money math concepts while her school curriculum did. And, school curriculum also helps her revise the parts that she did long time ago at KUMON and has forgotten by now. For example, when she was doing multiplication in KUMON, her class teacher was still teaching subtraction. That helped because S was beginning to lose subtraction skills for lack of practice. And this year, she finishes her math classwork and then goes ahead and does extra with her teacher's permission. Which, in my opinion, shows a "will to learn" - a very important ingradient of success.

In my opinion, this is also teaching her a few other things. One - you have to do what you have to do. Meaning, even if you already know multiplication (or any other skill that is currently being taught in class), you have to do it as part of the school curriculum. You CANNOT get out of doing it just because you already know it. Two - never be smug about your math skills because though there are things you are very good at, there are some other skills that you need to work on, just like other kids. (Example - her struggles with money math last year) Three - practice makes perfect. This one she has experienced for herself and now realizes its importance (I hope!)

Almost everyone in our social circle, who has ever sent their kids to KUMON at one time or the other, has mentioned to us how their kids used to get "bored" with math at their school because they were ahead of the rest of their class. Most of them cited "boredom" as a reason for dropping out of the KUMON math program. I don't know why. As I mentioned earlier, it hasn't happened to S. And if it has, she hasn't mentioned to us - which is just as good because we would still have made her do it. "Bored" is a word I don't entertain. No way, no how! I know, I sound like a tyrant. Heck! I am a tyrant when it comes to studies. I know that is THE ONLY TICKET TO SUCCESS my daughters have. S does mention it when KUMON begins to become a burden of sorts. Then we let her take a break for a week or so. Every year, she gets a break form KUMON for one week each in summer and winter. And sometimes an extra week here or there if we feel (or if she says) it is becoming too much for her. That, I guess, prevents it from becoming a huge burden. By now, KUMON is a way of life for her. She remembers to do the homework every day without us having to remind her. I hope this will continue into her middle school and high school years. Because the skills that KUMON is teaching her reach far beyond just success in math. The discipline will definitely help her in other avenues in life. The skill to understand concepts on her own (of course she takes our help when she gest stuck) is going to prove important later in college. The perseverance she is learning in understanding tricky math concepts will pay off later in life.

Coming back to the article - I agree KUMON is not perfect. Nothing is. But we work hard at making it work for us. Like everything else in life. Nothing comes your way custom-made and ready to fit. You have to tuck here, nip there.

The author of the article suggests that parents should do every homework themselves along with the kids. I agree, but not completely. You don't need to do every single homework. You do need to know how to solve those problems and be able to explain to your kid(s) if the need arises. Having solved the problems yourself a few times does come in handy when you have to explain it to someone else.

We had signed S up for KUMON's reading program as well and she attended it for over 3 years. But then we learnt about SCORE's writing program. We liked the program and wanted to try it out. S loved it and even made some remarkable progress in her writing skills. but we had to take her off of the program. There were a few reasons. One - they weren't offering Writing as a stand-alone program. They wanted us to opt for the whole Math-Reading-Writing package. Since we were already very happy with the KUMON math and reading program, we decided not to join SCORE. Two - and this one was a biggie for me, I am not sure if other parents will feel the same way as I do - the SCORE program is COMPLETELY computer based. I mean, even the "writing" that S did was on a computer. Now, call me old-fashioned, but I believe a child should learn how to write well before graduating to typing. And, with all the typing, S was losing her handwriting skills fast. At KUMON, she is required to write everything - math answers as well as answers to the questions in her reading material. I like it that way. As I said - nothing is perfect. You have to work at making things fit you. We tried but we weren't able to compromise on these two issues regarding the SCORE program. I think we might give it another try a few years from now when S is done with KUMON (one can hope, right? :P)


Sandeepa(Bong Mom's CookBook/DesiMomzClub) said...


This is such a good article, will be much treasured by me. Shall re-read this again thoroughly next year and maybe start my S on Kumon too.

What I liked is thge other points/beliefs you have put down other than just being ahead and learning Math

Asha said...

Great article!
Here are some from me.
NEVER push kids to do what they are not capable of. They will lose interest in everything once they get panicky about not doing well.
Let them do their best, help if asked by them. Be there when they need you. Then if they feel happy and have the drive, they will do well themselves.
Personally, I am lucky in that dept.I taught them until 6th grade, after that they take care of their homework themselves and do well.
My daughter gets so upset when gets an occasional B- in advanced studies, I had to tell her to calm down and study harder next time, it's not the end of the World!
When you apply for college, grades count only 1/3rd of the whole application. Everything else comes from how well you behaved all thru' school, volunteer work, how well you get along with others,Leadership, sports, clubs and achievements, awards etc counts. More than A+ grades, it's the other things they consider in US atleast. Grade are imp too, but kids need to enjoy doing other things as well.
Good luck, kudos to you for helping your kids when it's needed.