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    And they didn’t even need a sand tray

    Joanne Jacobs posts on education, so it’s not surprising that the Japanese public education system comes up in posts and comments pretty frequently. Many of the advertisements on commuter train cars here are for cram schools, and one of the big ones…amazing that I forget which, since I’ve been seeing its ads for a fifth of my life now…uses its space to give sample questions for tests at its various program levels. This week’s is for the grade-school kids. I didn’t take a photograph of it or write it down, but the content of the problem is as follows:

    In this exercise we will use a simple experiment to estimate the value of pi. Assume a square piece of paper, 20 centimeters on a side, with a circle inscribed in the square. You have sprinkled 50 sesame seeds evenly and randomly over the paper. If there are 39 sesame seeds inside the circle, estimate the value of pi to two decimal places.

    Two things jump out at me about this problem that I find hard to articulate when commenting at Joanne’s and other places: for one thing, in its math education, Japan doesn’t emphasize creativity any more than it does anywhere else. What it does emphasize is resourcefulness and learning how to be “good with numbers” even if you’re not naturally gifted that way, in addition to demonstrating how to set things up formally.

    The other thing is that Japan is not afraid to use unforced-sounding Japanese situations in its story problems. Granted, things can get kind of lunaticky in the opposite direction. If I recall correctly, a textbook was edited to remove mention of pizza a few years ago, since Ministry of Education (as it was then) bureaucrats didn’t deem such a foreign food item suitable for young minds to be exposed to. But having come of age in an era in which every word problem about welding pipe identified the pipefitter as female, I find it kind of nice to see questions about boiled rice and paper lanterns all the time.

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