Last night I bought this book for the girls to work on at home. It’s the first in a lengthy series of workbooks in the Kumon system for learning reading and math. I used to work at a learning services center that was also a Kumon Math center, and when I worked there I was amazed at what the Kumon kids could do as they worked through their workbooks. I didn’t realize you could buy Kumon books off-the-rack or online, and I was thrilled to find that our Barnes & Noble carries a big selection of them.
The book is very simple, full of cute graphics, and very tightly focused on just two goals: teaching kids how to hold a pencil properly and how to draw straight and curved lines neatly and correctly. The whole book is nothing but one exercise after the next, with incremental increases in difficulty, of drawing a line or curve (or combination) from a starting point to a terminal point. That’s all — holding the pencil right and drawing good lines. No more, no less.
But when you think about it, how important are those two skills? Before calculus, you have to do algebra. Before algebra, arithmetic. Before arithmetic, you have to be able to write numbers and letters and operation symbols correctly, and that involves penmanship (pencil-man-ship?) and drawing the components of numbers and letters and symbols, which are lines and curves in combination. All the complex skills students need to have break down into these atomistic skills, and students have to start somewhere and then master skill k before moving on to skill k+1.
And despite the education reformers’ hue and cry to ditch drill and practice and set up “authentic assessment” in its place, kids seem to really like drill and practice. They like it, that is, when the goals are clearly spelled out and their attainment is always in sight, and when encouragement and rewards are frequent. My 4-year old couldn’t put down the tracing book, and she gets bored easily with most things. There’s something very compelling to kids about having a goal set in front of them which they can do, and then doing it, and having a related but slightly more difficult goal then in front of them. That sort of thing is a lot more compelling to a kid than a “math lesson” that doesn’t teach any math.
How much better would K-12 and college curricula be if we followed these examples, of keeping things simple but highly structured in a cognitive hierarchy, and holding high expectations for kids while having them progress slowly through simple tasks?