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19 December 2017

How pencil and paper learning is highly relevant in today’s digital age

Kumon has experienced a yearly increase in enrolments in Australia and New Zealand since 2009. Thousands of parents choose to make the daily study of Kumon worksheets part of their children’s mathematics and reading education. We listen to parents to understand what elements of our service in particular they value. Why do they enrol in the first place? Why do they stay? What makes a 60-year-old pencil and paper programme relevant for 21st century families? Recently we interviewed a Kumon dad in Sydney, named Robert. He holds degrees in telecommunications engineering and physics. His career has been in fields involving mathematics. He chose to enrol his son in Kumon when he was in Primary 3. We wondered what influenced him, an accomplished mathematician, to choose Kumon mathematics over the many other offerings available. His responses surprised us.

Always available
The first aspect of Kumon that Robert said he liked was that Kumon was always available, even in the school holidays. He had read research that found when children stop learning altogether for six weeks over the summer holidays, or even longer in most OECD countries, they forget so much and lose the rhythm of daily study. It then takes them longer to get back on track in the new school year. He appreciated that he could have access to Kumon worksheets all year round for his son to complete at the Kumon Centre, at home, or even away on holiday. By studying just 30 minutes a day, which he believes hardly impacted at all on the enjoyment of the holidays, his son continued to make progress in his mathematics. He felt his son progressed the most in the holidays because there was hardly anything else going on and he had more energy. He did the worksheets first thing in the morning and then went off and had fun for the rest of the day. Robert said he valued the structure and consistency Kumon provided. In four years at Kumon, his son took only a couple of weeks off from studying the worksheets.

Learning by writing out problems
When investigating the options available for his son’s mathematics development, Robert found that many other programmes are computer based. But he was certain he did not want more screen time for his son. He had also read that students’ performance in mathematics in the long term is not enhanced significantly by computer-based learning. As a mathematician, he believes that children should practise maths problems by writing them out, erasing their errors, and writing them out again until they get them right, without relying on calculators or computers. ‘Kids are overdosing on computers anyway,’ he remarked. Thus, he chose Kumon because it is a pencil and paper method. In hindsight, he believes he chose wisely. His son can now solve advanced mathematical functions even though he doesn’t know how to use his dad’s calculator.

An emphasis on continued progress
Robert appreciated an uninterrupted structured programme because he values continued progress. Kumon has conducted two national surveys of currently enrolled and past Kumon families, most recently in 2017 and previously in 2013. Overwhelmingly, parents’ feedback was that they, like Robert, value progress, and expect it. A Grattan Institute Report, published July 2015, stated: ‘The best schools in Australia are not necessarily those with the best ATAR or NAPLAN scores. They are those that enable their students to make the greatest progress in learning. Wherever a student starts from on the first day of the year, he or she deserves to have made at least a year’s worth of progress by the end of it. Any less and our students will fail to reach their full potential. Sadly that is too often the case.’ (Grattan Institute 2015)

Computers and learning maths
Robert’s conviction that computer-based programmes are not better than pencil and paper is supported in the 2015 ‘Students, Computers and Learning’ OECD report, . The report finds when computers are used in the classroom; their impact on student performance is mixed at best. Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes. The results also show no significant improvements in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that have invested heavily in information communication technology for education. On the contrary, Shanghai, China and South Korea are the lowest adopters of computers at school among OECD nations, but the highest performers in digital reading and computer based mathematics PISA tests (OECD 2015). They don’t rely heavily on computers to learn reading and mathematics but they still ace online international tests.

Individualised instruction and engagement is highly valued
The report also proposes that technology sometimes distracts from valuable human engagement between educator and student. Robert valued highly the role of his son’s Kumon Instructor. He felt that she was across every single one of her students’ progress, and knew exactly what worksheets they needed to study, and when. He noticed his son’s cousins and friends enrolled at the centre each progressed in a subtly different way. She knew exactly how to structure the programme for his son, according to his progress and individual needs. If his son ever got stuck, he would sort it out with his Instructor. This degree of individualised instruction and level of engagement between educator and student is valued highly by parents in an increasingly online education environment.

Developments in information and communication technology have revolutionised virtually every aspect of leisure, education and work. Its benefits are immense and its impact will continue to expand. But it doesn’t look like it will be replacing pencil and paper for mathematics and reading education soon, or engagement between educator and student. In fact, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Robert articulates it simply. He wants the just-right content for his son. He sees it as the role of the instructor to provide it, based on detailed understanding of his son’s individual needs and progress. He wants a little each day, all year round, so his son continues to progress and realise his potential. And he wants pencil and paper, because it is still the best way to study mathematics.

Since the interview with Robert took place, his son successfully completed Kumon Mathematics in August of primary 6.The final level contains differential calculus.

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Download Enrolment Booklet here

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