This past Tuesday I went back to Miyamoto sensei’s class. 2.5 hours in the morning with the 6th graders, and 2.5 hours in the afternoon with the 4th graders. In between I had a great sushi lunch at Tsukiji Fish Market, but that’s another story. If you’re in the neighborhood, I highly recommend going.
I am still amazed at the amount of concentration that Miyamoto sensei himself displays during class. He is straight-faced, pacing, checking, writing (on the board), and saying, for the most part, only two words – Maru or Botsu (Good or Wrong) – for 2.5 hours straight. Sometimes he says nothing at all when he checks a student’s work. This forces the student to really re-check their work. It’s not as surprising to me anymore that he gets the same level of concentration back from the students. In a way, they all seem like an orchestra playing together for 2.5 hours. Miyamoto sensei is the conductor, and the students play and play and play until he says stop. Why do students run to the bathroom? The orchestra doesn’t sound as good without them. I asked Miyamoto sensei several questions about his planning process during my interview, and his answers sounded like that of a musician or performing artist. More on that below.
My biggest takeaway from this session is that there is no substitution for a great lesson or problem. You can be the most gifted teacher, but if you don’t have a great lesson or problem that captures the students, you are dead in the water. Miyamoto sensei believes this so strongly that he doesn’t do any direct teaching at all. He merely gives excellent problems and expects the learning to come from the hard work and perseverance that is necessary to solve them. I myself was enthralled with one of his problems for about 30 minutes, and I eventually created a great spreadsheet on excel to help me figure it out. I probably should have been able to solve it by hand, but that’s where I went. How would you do it?
The number of boys in 1st grade is 2/3 of the amount of girls. 5/12 of all 1st graders wear glasses. 72 of the boys wear glasses, and 5/9 of the girls do not wear glasses. How many 1st graders are there?
Like last time, I did not record my interview. I only took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.
Q: How do you plan which questions to use in class?
A: I always start my class with review problems from the previous class. After that, I use a set of 10 problems that get progressively harder. I have created all of these problems myself and spent much time arranging them. I am very satisfied with how they have come out.
Q: You told me previously you wake up very early on school days. Why is that and can you tell me more about your routine?
A: It is true I wake up very early on school days. I usually wake up at about midnight, ride my bike to the school, where I then sleep for a few more hours. This starts to bring my focus to school. After some more sleep, I wake up and start preparing my materials. In this time, I am also building up my focus for class, which takes quite a while. I do a lot of visualizing of how the class will go, and my focus steadily increases right up to the beginning where I am finally ready.
Q: I have certainly learned in your classroom that there is no substitute for a great problem, and you have many of them. Where does your inspiration come from to create these problems?
A: Students need great problems to capture their attention. It is much like reading a great novel. When you are reading a great novel, it does not feel like you are even reading. Time will pass, and you won’t even realize it. The same is true with a great problem or puzzle. I have been doing this a long time – 30 years – and I have built up a large knowledge base over that time. At this point in my career, I have enough experience to create interesting problems without it taking too much time.
Q: I have noticed that sometimes you write the problems on the board and other times you give a worksheet. Which do you think is better?
A: I believe using the board is better. When students have to copy a problem, they always show a higher level of concentration because of this extra work. When the problem is already there for them, the do not show as much focus on the problem.
Q: In my own classroom, I occasionally allow the students to use an answer key to check their own work so that 1) I can use many different level worksheets at once; and 2) so I don’t have to run around the room to check everyone’s work. What do you think of this practice?
A: Truthfully I have never thought about using this practice [laughs]. I love pacing around the room and seeing student work. I also have never thought about giving different levels of problems to the students based on their ability. The ability level in my classroom does have a wide range, yet I believe that every student should try the most difficult problems. It is true that very often my students do not find the solutions [side note: for the problem above only a few students out of about 20 solved it], but that does not matter. What matters is the hard concentration and effort that all of the students show in their work. I could understand that parents might not be happy with this method, but since all of the parents know my program, they never question it.
Q: I place a lot of emphasis on divergent thinking, multiple solutions to problems, and sharing with the class. When you check student work, do you notice many different types of solutions, and do you ever share them or have them share their solutions with the rest of the class?
A: Yes I notice many different types of solutions when I check their work. But often there is a lot of work all over the place and probably not the best to share. Once in a while, if there is a very interesting solution to a problem I will share it with the class. But generally I do not like pushing one student’s thinking on another. Every student should think for himself and create his own ideas.
One more class on Saturday, and then heading home on Sunday. Stay tuned for Q&A Part III.