Three professors from Japan recently visited BYU campus and shared their expertise and teaching methods with students and faculty members in the Department of Mathematics Education.
Professors Hiro Ninomiya of Saitama University and Kazuhiko Souma of Hokkaido University of Education, as well as Masayuki Sugimori, an elementary teacher on sabbatical at Saitama, visited the United States in early November to observe American classrooms and compare teaching techniques. After a brief stay in Connecticut, the trio made their way to Utah Valley for a weeklong visit hosted by the BYU Mathematics Education department.
Professor Blake Peterson has built a professional friendship with Ninomiya and his colleagues over the last several years—a relationship that helped lay the groundwork for the professors’ visit to Provo.
“[Ninomiya] arranged for me to come to Japan and do research in Matsuyama back in 2003,” Peterson said. “I lived there for two months with my family, observing classes and gathering data. This is the second time he has come to the United States, kind of to return the favor.”
Peterson said the visitors were interested in observing four areas of the American educational system — gifted education; teacher education, such as the classes taught at BYU; technology and how technology is used in teaching; and elementary education, because Professor Souma and Mr. Sugimori were both elementary-focused.
Peterson arranged for them to visit several classes of varying academic rigor across Utah Valley — including everything from an AP Calculus class at Spanish Fork High School right down to a 2nd grade class at Mapleton Elementary School.
The visiting professors also spoke with BYU’s mathematics education faculty and gave a presentation about Japan’s new national math standards to the department’s student organization, the Mathematics Education Association.
Peterson said the Japanese bring a different perspective to teaching mathematics, something Professor Souma—who is very well known in his country as an advocate for teaching math through problem-solving—demonstrated in his presentation to the BYU students.
“He had one problem in particular that was a pretty simple, routine problem that’s taught in the U.S. in a very memorized, procedural way,” Peterson said. “And with a very simple change, he turned it into a problem of inquiry where students are looking at him, wondering, ‘Wow! I wonder if? What if?’ He turned it into a real problem instead of something to memorize.”
The problem-solving approach demonstrated by Souma represents one of many differences between the teaching techniques practiced in Japan and those common in the United States. Peterson said examining such differences can provide educators and policymakers with a better perspective on how improvements can be made to the current system.
“One of the big benefits of looking at math education in other countries is that it gives us a different lens with which to look at math education in the U.S.,” he said. “There are things we do that we never think about, and we never think about it because we’ve never seen anything different. But when you go look at it in another country where it’s very different and then you look back at your own, you can really start to see those differences.”