How Kumon Helped My Child During the Pandemic
My oldest daughter, Louisa, spent the month of June doing the same 40 pages of multiplication problems over and over again. 9×3, 5×8, 7×2 on a seemingly endless loop. Every day she got faster and more accurate as she completed five pages, first thing in the morning. She never complained, but truthfully I grew bored correcting the same worksheets. But, by the end of June, she could multiply quickly and efficiently, so when her teacher started advancing her worksheets to two-digit by one-digit multiplication, my daughter was both thrilled about the new challenge and mastered the skill in a month. A month later, Louisa learned to divide in a week. The method worked.
We are a proud Kumon family. The Kumon Method, which is often criticized for the rote worksheets like those that I described, has students complete daily independent work in reading and math until they have totally mastered a concept. I have a Doctorate in Education with an emphasis on educational program evaluation. I have been a teacher, and I favor a diverse set of instructional models that engage students to think independently and creatively. And yet, I believe whole-heartedly in the Kumon method of skill mastery. My faith in this system has been buttressed by the ways in which I witnessed my first grader transition to online learning seamlessly because of her Kumon training.
My daughter’s school was the first in our region to transition to remote learning due to COVID-19. Because it is an affluent private school, all students had devices and teachers’ assumed students had internet access. The early childhood faculty switched to a combination of daily synchronous and asynchronous instruction including specials like art and music. The transition wasn’t flawless, and it certainly wasn’t the same as being in a deeply engaging first grade classroom, but it was good enough. However, my conversations with other parents made me realize that different children did not have such an easy transition to online learning. For Louisa, the switch to virtual school was a disappointment, but it didn’t cause the kind of parent-child battles and academic slide that my friends reported. I believe that this is because of her Kumon training.
Independent learning is a hallmark of the Kumon program. Very young students are encouraged to complete their assigned work without parent intervention. While many parents grade the worksheets at home daily, as my husband and I do, we do not help Louisa find the answers in either reading or math. Even when doing corrections, we point out a mistake but never offer an explanation. It is totally on her to power through the material. At school, however, there is always a teacher and occasionally an assistant teacher there to guide Louisa and her peers through all of their work. Very little is done without adult engagement. This is a good thing, in most cases, but many children seem to have become reliant on an adult presence in order to learn.
Because Louisa is a Kumon Student, she is capable of and confident in her abilities to teach herself alone at our dining room table with necessary. So, while completing her asynchronous learning assignments from school during the stay-at-home orders, Louisa had already developed a system in which she would head to the dining room after breakfast, write down the tasks expected of her for that day, complete them, and send them into her teacher. She was often done with the asynchronous elements within 45 minutes. There was no new routine establishment or battles over when she would do the work. She certainly never asked me to sit with her during her on or offline school time. She had mastered independent learning and was putting those skills to use in a new context.
The other important lesson that Kumon has taught Louisa is somewhat controversial—learning does not always have to be fun to be worthwhile. Over the past thirty years, American education has developed a near obsession with making kids like school through gamifying every task, emphasizing personal choice in reading and writing, and encouraging creative collaboration over tedious worksheets. A lot of this change is welcome and warranted, but I often wonder if educators, myself included, have gone too far.
Kumon, however, is often not fun. Of course, Louisa is incredibly proud of herself when she reaches a new level in Kumon and that fuels her. She has a signature happy dance when she goes through a math packet without a single mistake, but changing 86 sentences from passive to active voices is not what causes her the most joy in life. Remote learning, similarly, is not nearly as fun as real school. It lacks the social experience of learning with friends, the excitement of lining up for physical education, and the endless supply of art materials to create beautiful projects. That is, it lacks the energy of a well-run elementary school classroom. But, Kumon students like Louisa already knew how to power through the drudgery because it was worthwhile, even if it wasn’t fun. In my work as an independent college counselor, I see a lot of students who struggle when school is no longer fun. For some of them, it’s when math gets hard in high school, and for others it’s plowing through organic chemistry or The Brothers Karamazov in college. Kumon Students know that learning doesn’t have to be fun for it to be important and lead to strong outcomes.
The Kumon Program promotes speed and accuracy. While I have witnessed Louisa become an incredibly fast mathematician and master English vocabulary, literature, and grammar with incredible accuracy in the Kumon Program, I am now most impressed with the ways that Kumon has given her speed and accuracy as a scholar. She has a system of learning that is transportable across many media, she has the discipline to do it efficiently and quickly, and she has the patience to persevere through repetition and occasional boredom. In person school resumed for her last week and she is thrilled to be back. I cannot wait to see how her diligent Kumon studies continue to strengthen her school performance as the work gets slightly harder in second grade. More important, the value of Kumon has never been clearer to me. My middle daughter, Susanna, turns three next month and just began her Kumon journey so that she, too, masters the essential scholar’s skills that Kumon teaches so well.
Diana Rodgers, Ed.D. is the founder and CEO of Fit Education Consulting LLC. She and her husband Michael Genuardi, M.D. live in Philadelphia with their three daughters, two of whom are Kumon students and one who will be on her third birthday.
Louisa has been proudly attending the Kumon Math and Reading Center of Conshohocken and under the expert guidance of Ms. Heema Shah has proudly reached her first Kumon goal of reaching Level C by 1 in both subjects in a short span of just one year.