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Calculation time - Japanese educator aims to create one love for maths

Published:Friday | October 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM

What happens when a teacher strums a guitar, carries handmade soft toys, sheets of musical lyrics, booklets and dollops of imagination. Music to the ears? What if we said these are tools to teach mathematics?

Yes, mathematics. The mere sound of it gives some of us a brain freeze, but Miwako Sugawara is on a mission to thaw that freeze, warm up the grey matter and develop a love of complex calculations.

"This is the Japanese way to teach mathematics to Jamaican students," Sugawara said. And, of course, the flavours of the island had to be incorporated, which comes with a little assurance from Bob Marley - Everything's Gonna be Alright.

"Don't worry about the maths, because Calculation Time gonna be alright" is the message that rings though the classrooms when Sugawara steps in. She visited more than 100 schools across the island during her stint as the Japan International Cooperation Agency's (JICA) senior volunteer in Jamaica.

"Music is important for students," Sugawara said. "In the Japanese way, teaching maths, we don't use fingers, we use dots to manipulate."

When she first walked into a classroom, she, like most students, found the method of teaching mathematics to be intimidating.

"There needed to be some fun," Sugawara told The Sunday Gleaner. "Playing and learning is always more effective than sitting down, keeping silent, and copying what the teacher says or writes."

So, this retired teacher, who spent 38 years teaching in primary schools in Japan, plays guitar and shamisen (a Japanese string instrument) and shinobue (flute), put on her thinking cap and got into making maths 'all right'.

"Bob Marley is a great singer, so it was obvious that his song was used," she said. "And we were going to make maths fun, and make things all right."

She added: "Everyone loves singing, and the students were enthusiastic when teaching maths was made fun."


Sugawara started penning the song, which took three months to complete, after which they went to the Bob Marley Foundation to get permission to use the variant of song.

"We approached the foundation and they were kind enough to give us permission to use this variation of the song as an educational tool," informed Seymour Hamilton, education officer, Mathematics and Educational Technology, Core Curriculum Unit, Ministry of Education.

Calculation Time is now rocking the calculus beat.

"I teach this way to help students develop interest in mathematics," said Sugawara.

She said infusing traditional teaching techniques to calculate without using fingers was becoming effective.

"There needs to be a conceptual understanding," Hamilton said. "Computing was a challenge, and the challenge was to get students to move from making use of fingers, counting in groups of 10, to using domino cards."

This is being complemented by Calculation Time, which incorporates using singing. "There is more interaction between the teacher and the students. They have more fun and they learn more," Sugawara said.

Encouragement is the key, according to Sugawara, and she created a character, 'Calligator', the mathematics croc, which when combined with music, brings life to learning.

"I made 'Calligator' soft toys to be given to the best student. It is a form of motivation," she said.

"Calculation Time has also been developed into an app," said Hamilton.

Sugawara's creativity and innovations don't stop at infusing songs, she uses origami and drawing to make teaching interesting. She taught the students to make boxes for pencil shaving using a newspaper. And a helmet, kabuto. "This is what we teach as a part of home economy in Japan," she said.

But perfecting the numbers is not where she stops. Sugawara infuses healthy doses of teaching Japanese and world culture. She is an exponent of cultural exchange, which Sugawara said broadens students' perspectives, both of personal and of understanding life in a global village.

She also initiated a pen-pal programme between students of New Providence Primary School and St Andrew and a primary school in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands, home to volcanoes, natural hot springs, and ski resorts.

Sugawara returned to Japan last month, leaving behind a legacy, a confluence of eastern philosophy infused with the creative juices of this rock under the sun.

And as for mathematics, "Don't worry, cause Calculation Time gonna be all right."