Our last post on the fuzzy math of social media got us thinking of . . . the 3Rs, back to school, and more precisely, back to school performance! In the race to ever greater achievement, never have a circle, two dots and a line struck as much trepidation in students and concomitant delight in ambitious parents than the “Thinking Face” within the wordmark for Kumon Learning Centers:
Kumon is of course “world’s largest after-school math and reading enrichment program” having served over 16 million children as young as three (Junior Kumon — hooray!) to the threshold of university. No free-spirited, everyone wins a trophy, math-and-reading-are-fun ethos in this logo (although as one commenter has noted below, the kids in Kumon do evidently receive trophies). Working against the illusory superiority that carries many of us blithely along concerning the putative processing prowess and bright futures that await our precious progeny, Kumon’s logo throws a cold glass of water in our face to say, “your Johnnie, Jill or Joachim is not that smart. And by the way, you’re already way behind. SO WIPE THAT GRIN OFF YOUR FACE AND GET TO WORK!” With four simple pen strokes, Kumon communicates just what it intends: this is going to be grim, and yes . . . your child’s face will look like the logo, but she or he will learn to subtract! As one former Kumon instructor describes it, “The words that come to my mind to describe the Kumon math curriculum are “stark” and “barren”, [sic] possibly even “mind-numbing”, [sic] for the the elementary grade levels, and downright “mean” in the higher levels. . . . Kumon puts calculus before trigonometry. But that’s not the reason your child will never reach trigonometry; Kumon is almost certain to weed him out long before calculus. It does this with ridiculously complicated work in polynomial factorization . . . [b]ut speaking from the point of view of someone who loved math and was a physics and math major in college, I found much of it very painful and of very questionable value” [emphasis in the original].
Like many self-styled experts, BrandCultureTalk naturally has never darkened the door of a Kumon Learning Center. But we have been percipient witnesses to a sufficient number of students executing Kumon worksheets to ascertain that Kumon’s raison d’etre is drilling, drilling and more drilling. Kumon is a system Tiger Mom would love were she to ever consider outsourcing such essential inculcation (which she of course would not). For parents lacking the backbone/cheerful cruelty of Amy Chua (no performing in school plays, no instruments other than violin or piano, no sleepovers and never, ever a grade less than the top grade in the class), but still hell-bent on Princeton, or Peking University, Kumon provides a reasonable simulacrum of Professor Chua’s intensity. Setting aside the question of whether such hebetudinous repetition wrings out the last iota of intellectual curiosity that could possibly remain among today’s best and brightest after languid afternoons spent playing Cat Physics punctuated by repeated viewings of moronic pablum like Zack and Cody: The Suite Life on Deck, Kumon does appear to be effective at helping kids “compute with lightening speed and robotic accuracy,” even if it is the result of their doing the same worksheet six times in a row.
Cyberspace is awash with testimonials extolling the virtues, life-changing impact and significant limitations of the Kumon approach. But there is also a fair amount of speculation about the Kumon logo itself, including the apocryphal suggestion by at least one Kumon franchisee that Carolyn Davidson, the graphic designer who invented the Nike Swoosh created the troubled face.
Close, but not quite right.
The storied geniuses at W + K (Nike‘s primary agency since 1982, and the same shop that more recently brought you Isaiah Mustafa and Fabbio as the Old Spice Guys) actually concepted the Thinking Face back in 2001 to reflect the “concentration of studying children.” Incredibly, the W + K 2008 Worldwide Credentials Book describes the Thinking Face as a “far more approachable and friendly face for KUMON to the consumer,” which really misses the whole point: Kumon is not your friend — it is your taskmaster. That’s why parents pay hard currency to send their children to Kumon instead of the arcade.
The Zoloft Circle Fellow bears more than a passing resemblance to the Thinking Face — albeit with more hopeful, post-Zoloft dose visage. Yet taking Zoloft to cheer up would make no sense for the Thinking Face. According to Kumon, the face doesn’t just represent the [dispirited, bereft, but ultimately resigned and concentrating] child-learner, but the instructors too: “The ‘THINKING FACE’ represents the face of everyone involved in Kumon.” Now that’s brand consistency. If everybody’s miserable, something useful must be going on.
We’ve noted ad naseum that great brands make tough choices, and in the case of Kumon, the company has boldly eschewed the old canard that children learn best through a combination of visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile exploration, and instead should relentlessly drill and memorize. Embrace or reject the approach, the brand is unequivocal, and unapologetic more helpful hints. It delivers on its brand promise, however unpleasant that experience may be for all involved.
As for us, we’re going to leave Kumon to the would-be Tiger Moms while we bring our kids on over to Giggles N’ Hugs for some balloon animals and mac n’ cheese. With such a concerted commitment to excellence, maybe someday they’ll make it all the way to Drake.