I have the privilege of having three Q&As with Miyamoto sensei, one after each class day. The first was Wednesday night. The second will be next Tuesday, and the last will be a week from this Saturday. I sat in the back of the class for five hours, and needless to say lots of questions about his methods, his ethos, and the students came up. Wednesday’s class was very similar to the first class day I observed (for more on that CLICK HERE), although there were a few occasions when students asked him to clarify something he wrote on the board. I was surprised they said anything at all.
It had been a long day for him, as he told me that on teaching days, he’s up at 2am preparing. He also said all he had eaten that day was a grapefruit. How anyone can survive all day on just a grapefruit is a wonder. Clearly he has focus and concentration that can outmatch most people. But even after such a long day he was so gracious – and even giddy – to answer my questions. He has an enthusiasm for what he does and sharing what he does – both in the classroom and in his puzzle making – that I’ve never seen before. Below is a summary of his responses. I did not record our conversation; I only took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.
Q: Tell me more about the point system you use.
A: I start out every class with review questions from the previous lesson. Each question is worth one point. Once those are finished, I introduce a new problems and I time each one individually. Each question is worth 10 points. I keep track on my tracking sheet as well as on the board so the students can see. The student with the highest points for the day will get the top ranking. Students very much want to be the highest ranked…If nobody gets the answer to a question, the points get carried over to the the top ranked student. This is like a bonus for being the top-ranked. If nobody can get an answer to a question, the top-ranked student loses points. This is the burden of being the top-ranked student. Whoever are the top scorers of the day get my handcrafted stickers. They are nothing special, but they are a fun incentive that the kids enjoy. It’s not the stickers that matter but that there is something to compete for. These are the basics of my system.
Q: I have heard you say that it is not how fast you solve a puzzle that is important, but that you never give up. Yet in your class there is a lot of timing. Why?
A: Time is not the most important thing when solving a puzzle. The most important thing is that you never give up and always continue to think. The process of solving itself makes you smarter. But, in class, there are time restrictions, so you must consider time in class.
Q: I noticed that you give the KenKen and other puzzles to the 3rd graders but not any of the older groups. Why not?
A: The puzzles are a great way to warmup your mind, but they do not teach you the mathematics. In my class, the kids are preparing for a big exam and must learn the mathematics.
Q: I understand the philosophy “The Art of Teaching without Teaching” but do you at least say something to the students on the first day of class?
A: On the first day I do tell them some rules and things about the classroom. I intentionally scare them so they know they need to behave in my class. My classroom is on the 12th floor, so I tell them not to lean on the glass because it is weak and they could fall out. I tell them not to jump in the elevator because it is weak and has gotten stuck before – sometimes for days! I tell them not to open the other door in the classroom because it is a chute straight down to the bottom of the building. I tell them not to run in the class because several other students have slipped while running before, hit their heads on the table, and they are still in the hospital. These kinds of things. I laugh now when I hear it, but I say it very seriously in class. The students do not question this.
Q: Do you create all of your own materials?
A: Absolutely! I have made over 10,000 puzzles in my life. [Here he showed me a picture of his newest puzzle from the Yomiuri newspaper – shown below.] I have also made 96 workbooks (which he showed me) that comprise my entire curriculum. About 2-3 years ago I worked day and night putting these books together. In many ways they are my life’s work. I had to create materials to go all the way up through high school. In my course that is for first-year middle schoolers, we do the entire middle school curriculum in one year. In my course that is for first-year high schoolers, we do the entire high school curriculum in one year. It is very advanced.
Q: Some students spoke today in class. This was a big surprise to me. What were they saying and was that OK?
A: Sometimes the students can not read my characters (words) on the board so they ask me to clarify. I am fine with this.
Final thought from Miyamoto sensei: There are four types of problems that exist. Easy, Easy and Fun, Hard, Hard and Fun. Easy doesn’t help you learn anything. Easy and fun is enjoyable but again it does not help you in any way. Hard problems are what most students see in their regular studies. They are challenging but they are not fun so kids are not interested in them. I try to make every problem I give Hard and Fun. This is what motivates students to learn.
I had more questions, but I wanted to quit while I was ahead so I decided to save them for next time. I had to think he was anxious to eat, and I was hungry myself. I asked him if we would get dinner at a restaurant nearby, but he said he rarely goes out (he loves to cook). He thought he might know one place (even though there’s about a thousand nearby), but then I suggested going to the local department store, Takashimaya, to get food to cook.
This is something I learned one of my first days here: All the department stores have massive food sections in the basement. Everything from desserts, chocolate, groceries, and every kind of food you could want. It’s not a food court; it’s more of the food department in a department store. Miyamoto sensei loved the idea and immediately led us downstairs, into underground subway passages that eventually led us into the Takashimaya basement.
Miyamoto sensei knew exactly what he wanted to cook. He grabbed an onion, bitter melon, lotus root, eggs, a bunch of meat, and sashimi. We took it back to his office, and he whipped up an amazing 3-course meal in his tiny office kitchen. We hung out for a while and enjoyed each other’s company while we shared stories, pictures, and he even let me sit in his chair. How this happened I’m not sure. He is a generous person in so many ways. I can’t wait to do it again next Tuesday.