It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m back in Brooklyn after a long trip home yesterday. Saturday was my last day sitting in the back of Miyamoto sensei’s class, and instead of doing our normal debrief/interview at school, I invited him and my translator to my apartment roof that night for a summer fireworks show (It was happening coincidentally. I didn’t arrange a fireworks show for the occasion, in case you were wondering.) and a celebratory dinner. We did the debrief there. Yesterday was all about travel, so here I am trying to catch up. Neat fact about traveling back from Japan: I departed Tokyo/Narita Sunday, August 17 at 5pm. I flew for over 12 hours and landed at Newark Liberty on Sunday, August 17 at 4:55pm. Yep, it took me 12.5 hours in a plane to fly back in time 5 minutes.
After doing some reflecting about the whole experience in Miyamoto sensei’s classroom, I realized I hadn’t written anything about what the classroom actually looked like. So in case you were curious, the room is about 15 x 15 and bright with floor to ceiling windows along about 1/3 of the walls. The classroom is on the 12th floor so it gets quite a bit of light and a nice view, not that anyone student is looking. There are five tables of three seats each on either side of the room with a walking aisle on both ends as well as a center aisle in between. Miyamoto sensei loves to pace around the room while the students are working.
There is a long chalkboard (with multi-colored chalk and a long eraser) up front where he lists the student’s names and keeps score of the daily performance for all to see. There is no technology except for a magnetized timer he uses throughout the session. It’s pretty old school.
In the back corner of the room where you enter is his office area with several computers, an enormous monitor, a copy machine, and other personal items like some cookwear, a refrigerator, CDs (many Queen albums) and a few extra shirts. As you may remember from my last post, he spends quite a bit of time here working on puzzles and preparing for school – not just teaching – and he needs some personal stuff from time to time.
On the side wall, there is a bulletin board with the daily student rankings that many students check when they enter the class. These rankings are huge. There is also one poster advertising the Japanese Math Olympiad. No other decorations. No “You can do it” or “Keep Trying” or “Work Hard” posters. Just a ton of math books and magazines and my guess is he has a system for where everything goes. There have been a few occasions when I was interviewing him that he ran over to a bookshelf and pulled out a random volume just to show me something.
It is also pretty cold in the classroom, which is a big contrast from the outside heat. It definitely keeps you awake and just slightly uncomfortable, which I think this is all part of the plan. I don’t think he minds if you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. The combination of the temperature and lack of any kind of comforting gestures or signs is something you need to cut through to maintain your focus. It’s as if you’re forced to develop the ability and the confidence to handle that type of environment for 2.5 hours at a time. This is the Zen of Miyamoto sensei.
This last interview I tried focus on some of the history of his classroom as well as what lies ahead in New York. In case you did not know, he announced several months ago that after 30 years of teaching in Tokyo, he will move his class to New York next year. Once again, I did not record this interview. I took notes based on what my translator, Tom, told me.
Q: Can you tell me about the evolution of the Miyamoto Mathematics School? Was it always in the format that I see today?
A: Yes, the format has always been the same. I had a few jobs before I became a teacher, but I did not find them fulfilling at all. I was not overly interested in profits, and I realized that I wanted to create something that would last. This is when I had the idea of becoming a teacher. So I got a job as a juku teacher at one of the best companies – TAP. They are no longer around. They have been replaced by Sapix. But after a short time there, I realized that I could not teach in the way I wanted to. That’s when I had the idea for my own school, and it was born. I have always created my own materials, which is the basis for my classroom. I worked extremely hard the first few years generating my own materials, but the school format then is exactly the way you see it now.
Q: When did you start creating puzzles? Was it at the same time your school started?
A: I got my first puzzle published in 1995 by Tokyo Shuppan. In 1997, I was able to get my puzzles published in one of the top mathematics magazines here in Japan. By 1999, this publisher was able to publish 2 books of my puzzles. In 2003, a top executive from Discover contacted me because her daughter had been enjoying my puzzles, so they decided to publish some books. Unfortunately, they did not sell well because they were too expensive. But, they did publish my book “The Art of Teaching without Teaching” and that was a big success. 2006 was when I started working with Gakken, the largest education publisher in Japan. With them I created four categories of books of KenKen: easy, medium, difficult, and expert. The books with Gakken now only cost Y600, and they sold well. Later in 2006 I was contacted by a very popular program on NHK, the public station in Japan, to do a piece on me. At first I did not have the best experience working with them, and I actually turned them down. But they came back to me – which never happens – and the piece finally aired on 12/10/06. This was the point where things really took off. I started getting recognized in the grocery store and things like that.
Q: What do you envision for the future of your school in New York City? How will it be different?
A: I plan on keeping it just the same as it was in Tokyo. The difference will be that the first year I will teach only 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in Japanese. I have a goal of improving my English enough within one year that in my second year of the school in New York, I can have an international 3rd grade class conducted in English. I will continue to build my international classes from there.
[Because I just had to ask] Q: Do you ever have disruptive students?
A: I try to give problems that are so challenging and consuming that there is absolutely no time for distraction. But there have been a few times here and there when I have had a disruptive student. There was one student who was doing something distracting with his pencil so I told him I would subtract 10 points from his score. Same goes for a student who I knew was cheating. Deducting points from their score was enough of a deterrent to make them stop.
This being the last interview with Miyamoto sensei, I thought I would end by sharing another one of my favorite problems from the day’s classes. I always come back to the fact that there is no substitute for a great problem that completely captures you. I worked on this for a while until I finally got it. How would you solve it?
48 x A = 54 x B = C x C x C
Find A, B, and C.