Drinking the Kumon Kool-Aid

Yesterday the Times ran an article titled, “Fast-Tracking to Kindergarten?”  all about Kumon, which is a Japanese imported ‘math and reading enrichment’ program.  Kumon has tutoring centers in storefronts all over the place, but have recently been emphasizing their Junior Kumon program, starting for children as young as two years old.    Kids are drilled in writing, reading, grammar, math and are rewarded with stickers.   They do timed math drills and can name past and present tenses, complete with grammatically correct examples, by the time they are 6.

“Little Kate Wattenberg, a 6 year old who recently graduated from Junior Kumon, has just finished 90 multiplication problems in 6 minutes.   As she prepares to check out for the day, she shows the center’s director, Diana Sutowski, the entry in her reading journal for the last book she read, Knights in Shining Armor.  ‘I liked that he did become a knight because he practiced a lot’ she had written.

‘Can you tell me what the future tense of practice is?’ Ms. Sutowski asks.

‘I will practice,’  Kate says.

‘The past tense?’

‘Past is already happened,’ Kate thinks aloud. ‘I practiced’

Before she leaves, Ms. Sutowski congratulates her with a high five.”

Impressive?  Some people might think so, but the interesting thing about the article is that it goes to pretty great lengths to point out that many researchers say this kind of learning at such a young age is unnecessary at best, and detrimental at worst.     For instance:

“Research suggests that there is little benefit from this kind of tutoring; that young children learn just as much about math, if not more, fitting mixing bowls together on the kitchen floor.”

Or even better:

“‘The best you can say is that they’re useless,’ said Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley, who compared the escalation of supplemental education with Irish elk competing to see which had the biggest antlers.  ‘The result is that they go around tottering, unable to walk, under the enormous weight of these antlers they’ve developed,’ she said.  ‘I think it’s true of American parents from high school all the way down to preschool'”

And even better than that:

“‘We are in a culture where education is the path to success, and it’s hard for people to recognize how deep and profound learning is when children are just playing’,[says Gopnik].

‘When you’re putting blocks together, you’re learning how to be a physicist,’ agreed Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and an author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.  ‘When you’re learning how to balance things and calculate how tall you can make your building, you’re learning how to be a physicist.  Having your kid drill and kill and fill in worksheets at 2 and 3 and 4 to the best of our knowledge so far does not give your child a leg up on anything.    Yes, your child might know more of his letters than the child who spent Saturday in the sandbox,’ she said, ‘But the people who are team players, who are creative innovators, they are the ones who are going to invent the next iPad.   The kids who are just memorizing are going to be outsourced to the kids in India who have memorized the same stuff'”

And yet, Kumon thrives because parents have bought into the belief that he who can do the most worksheets the fastest and with the fewest mistakes is he who will succeed.   The Kumon people are tapping into the American paranoia.   Kumon is a franchise, not a philanthropic organization.   The creators of the Kumon brand are smart business people, making a fortune off of our need to create little performing monkeys  who will go on to work for the entrepreneurs of the world until they are laid off because, as Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said, their job will be outsourced to someone in India who knows all the  same stuff.  (And who I imagine will work longer hours for less money.)

I commend the Times for giving both sides of this argument, (and for pointing out that such early drilling is frowned upon by many of the elite schools into which parents hope their über-prepared children will be accepted) but I’ll bet any amount of money that Kumon’s enrollment will jump as a result of the article.   Parents won’t absorb the quotes about how such learning is a waste of time and can even be detrimental to a child.   All they’ll see is that there is a toddler out there who ‘knows’ more than their kid, and they will run to shell out the $200-$400 a month so that their child doesn’t fall behind.   Armies of little children carrying their Kumon blue folders, dutifully giving out the past, present or future tense of verbs and coveting their reward stickers.  Two year olds required to do 20 minutes of homework in each subject every day.  The younger they are when they become part of the system, the less likely they are to rebel later on.

Will allowing your toddler to play instead of school (the past tense of which is ‘schooled’) become a subversive act?  If you believe in Kumon, it already is.

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