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Why the Mathematics Performance of Japanese Students Is Higher Than That of Students in Western Countries: Listening to the Voices from the Inside

by Yoshinori Shimizu
November 2001

dialogues One finding of large-scale international comparisons of students' achievement in mathematics has been the superior mathematical achievement of students from Eastern Asian countries, including Japan, as compared with the achievement in such Western countries as the United States and Canada. An explanation for this finding is complex and must consider various perspectives. One voice that has not been listened to by those involved in this debate is that of Japanese students. In an attempt to shed further light on this complex issue, I share the opinions of a group of Japanese university students.

When the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) surveyed the mathematical achievement of Japanese students of "Population 2" in 1995, the students were in the seventh or eighth grade. These students began their university studies in 2000. I thought that if I could listen to the voices of students in this age group, their comments about their superiority in mathematical achievement might offer interesting insights. I asked about 80 students in my mathematics methods course at our university for their opinions about the reasons that Japanese students do well in the international comparative studies. These students are preservice teachers from various places in our country and are not mathematics majors. I asked them to identify three major reasons for the high achievement of Japanese students in the international comparisons. Although the students identified many factors, the following were predominant: their parents' high expectations for education, the diligence of the Japanese people, a school system with a national curriculum, good teachers, juku schools and entrance examinations, and the importance of academic careers in society. To elaborate, many students pointed out that Japanese parents tend to spend a considerable amount of money on their children's education. Also, the students made many comments about their experiences in juku schools, where they spent extra hours after school and where mathematics was regarded as one of the key subjects. The students also wrote about having had excellent mathematics teachers. Interestingly, not a few students also mentioned that multiplication facts (ku-ku) were taught in second grade. They believed that the thorough mastery of ku-ku enabled them to do well in mathematics. Another interesting comment was that the abacus played a significant role in maintaining citizens' literacy in traditional Japanese society.

We mathematics educators should pay close attention to a number of comments that the students made. For example, some students pointed out that the mathematics teaching that they had received in high school focused on the procedures to solve problems rather than on their understanding of mathematical concepts. Also, under the present curriculum, the academic achievement of Japanese students seems to be satisfactory with respect to knowledge of concepts and procedures at the lower secondary school level. However, Japanese students' negative attitudes toward mathematics were seen on both the TIMSS and TIMSS-R. Many students want to do well in mathematics and believe that their parents also hope they will, but in reality many of them are not very interested in learning mathematics and do so passively. Further, many students do not realize the power of mathematics in applied work and see mathematics merely as an exercise for solving problems assigned by the teacher.

In conclusion, Japanese university students, at least those in my classes, offered several interesting reasons for their superior performance on TIMSS, many of which were related to the nature of the Japanese society and its values. We can learn a lot by listening to the voices of students as they reflect on their schooling, what they learned, and how they were taught.


Yoshinori Shimizu is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Information Science, Tokyo Gakugei University. He has been very involved in the TIMSS study and has traveled widely throughout the United States and various European countries studying their school mathematics curricula. His special interests are in mathematics teacher education and problem-solving instruction in middle school mathematics.




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