Everyone is talking about it – some are recommending it, some are wondering about and some are criticising the heck out of it. But what kind of animal is it? I began to wonder when I realised that my bilingual child needs a lot more help with English at school than his private, very expensive school is able to provide (but that’s another blog topic altogether).
I tried looking for information about the Kumon program on the internet but the stuff I found was mainly marketing material that didn’t really provide anything informative about the structure of the program and how it is administered. Talking to parents of kids who attended the program didn’t help much because all I got was that the kids get work books and attend a class twice a week where the work gets checked. I wanted to know more about the workbooks, what they contain, how they are graded and marked, how do kids actually learn new concepts.
The next thing I have done was to call the Kumon info line and get a few addresses of our local Kumon centres. I called one of them at Maroubra and Patrick, the centre manager, invited me to a free introductory session where all my questions could potentially be answered.
So child and husband in tow I went to the introductory session which began at 6:00 pm. The first half an hour is dedicated to testing the kids in order to assess their skill level. Initially based on their age they are given a small booklet of questions for either English or Maths (depending on the subject you are planning to enrol the child in) and the supervisor (usually a uni student) explains how to fill it out. The start and end time are noted to see the speed of the child. Level 1 Maths was pretty straight forward starting with counting questions and progressing to addition and subtraction. The English booklet contained some simple sentences and pictures that needed to be matched. For instance, one sentence said “The wind begins to blow” and three pictures depicting a tree covered in snow, a tree under rain and a tree whose leaves are being blown away by wind. The child needs to place a tick next to the matching picture. When finished the booklet is marked and the child is assigned into a particular skill level. If the booklet is completed without any mistakes and under a certain time the child is given a more difficult test.
Following this testing session that lasted considerably longer than the 1/2 hour promised, Patrick began to explain how the Kumon system worked in general. Unfortunately, most of what he said was also marketing dispersed with promises that the program, if applied and followed strictly, will guarantee get your child to the top of the class. However, after a 1 hour presentation and thanks to the question/answer section here is what I managed to understand about the program:
1. The child is enrolled into either English or Maths or both subjects and assigned a level based on their initial assessment. The level they are assigned into is deliberately 2 steps lower than their actual skills in order to make the work easy and enjoyable initially and get the kids into the flow of things.
2. The child is to attend the Kumon centre twice a week for 1/2 hour per subject (longer for older kids). Hence, if the child is enrolled in both subjects each session will last 1 hour. At the centre they receive their work booklets that need to be completed and marked at home, they also complete booklets during the actual sessions. Marked booklets are brought back to the centre and are checked and recorded.
3. At home the child is to do Kumon booklets EVERY day of the week and most days during the holidays (although the work load during the holidays is slightly reduced). The child is to spend 1/2 hour per subject per day.
4. What puzzled me was what happens when the child progresses from one level to the next; how is the child to understand a new concept without having the benefit of a formal lesson where the teacher explains it. Patrick kept saying that once the child MASTERS the lower level they will somehow (almost magically), by way of trial and error begin to understand the concepts in the more difficult levels. This was still confusing to me because with concepts such as long division, for instance, I cannot possibly see how the child would be able to even start attempting it until they understand the method. What I gather is that they would have to rely heavily on the examples given in the beginning of each booklet and, of course, they would have the option of asking questions during the weekly sessions at the Kumon centre.
5. The child is to work independently at home, without assistance from the parent, however, it is recommended that they work in full view of the parent and that the parent times each session. The booklet is marked BY THE CHILD, using a special marking guide. The marking system seemed quite complicated so I will not recount it here in order not to mislead people. However, Patrick reassured us that the marking guide is straight forward. It is borrowed from the centre and needs to be returned after each level is completed.
6. For the English subject, CDs are available for home use, however, CD for each level costs approx. $21 and it can be sold back to the centre for half the price. The child also listens to the CD during the weekly sessions at the Kumon centre.
7. Patrick highlighted that common criticism of rote learning that is often given to the Kumon program should actually be viewed as a positive because repetition is what leads to mastery and confidence. Mastery and confidence are, in turn, signs of true knowledge.
All in all, I must say that the session did not make the Kumon method completely transparent and many questions for me remain unanswered. I guess, without actually trying it out it is impossible to understand it in depth. What really instills confidence is the fact that the program obviously works, it is attended by hundreds of kids in different centres throughout Australia and the results speak for themselves. One major concern that we left the session with is that the program requires a huge commitment on behalf of the parents and the child. And this is what, in the end, stopped us from enrolling our 6 yr old son for the time being. However, we will definitely consider it for when he is a little older. I think the program is perfect for kids who are preparing for scholarship or selective schools exams. Or those who just want to improve their school results.