Ever wondered how Mathnasium got started, or what makes us different than a private tutor? Here is a great interview with co-founder and Chief Instructional Officer, Larry Martinek.
Larry Martinek, “The Man Behind the Method,” is chief instructional officer of Mathnasium Learning Centers. Known for his smile, his stories and his trademark ponytail, Larry is beloved by Mathnasium students, instructors and franchisees around the world.
Larry devoted his life to enabling students to understand and love math. He taught mathematics in public and private schools, gang reduction programs, and gifted youth groups before co-founding Mathnasium in 2001. The Mathnasium Method™, developed by Larry and his late son, Nic, has revolutionized math education, improving the lives of students, their families, franchise owners, and the communities in which Mathnasium Learning Centers are located.
How and when did you come up with the Mathnasium Method?
The Mathnasium Method is an accumulation of best practices dating as far back 3,000 years, plus original thinking by my son, Nic, and me.
The earliest example was in 1984, the day before Nic’s fourth birthday. He had a candy bar on the kitchen table, and he cut it into two pieces. Now, as a kid that age will most often say, he said “half and half.” The only thing was, it was really about 60/40. The question is, as a math teacher, what do I say to this child who's only 3 years old? Well, I could have said, “Hey Nic, that's not half, because half means the division of a whole into two equal parts,” but that would have gone right over his head.
I said, “Hey Nic. That's not half, because half means…” — and for the first time in my life, I uttered four words that changed my life — “...two parts the same.” Yep. I knew I was onto something because Nic said, “Oh!" And he cut it perfectly in half.
I'd been teaching nine years at that point. I had my degree in math and my life teaching credential. I was a well-regarded teacher, but I realized that I had been teaching right out of the book. I was teaching the way that I was taught, which is everyone’s natural tendency. Paraphrasing one of Newton’s Laws of Motion, “Things will continue to be as they are unless acted on by an outside force.”
Nic was that new force for me at that moment. I realized that the difference between “two parts the same” and the “division of a whole means two equal parts” for a three-year-old, is the same difference that goes on in classrooms every day across the world. Teachers are saying things that don't get through to kids. The syntax is not particularly kid-friendly.
Of course, one of the things we do here at Mathnasium is change the way people think about math, and that includes our instructors and our franchisees. They come in with their own understanding of things, but it's primarily an accumulation of the way that they were taught. I want to be that outside force for our instructors, and I want them to be that outside force for kids.
Peter, our CEO, gave me the finest compliment I've ever received, when he said that I have the humility to have learned from a child. That's where Mathnasium started.
If you had to pick the essence of what separates us from other math education companies or private math tutors, what would it be?
On the curriculum side, our assessment process drills down to find out where each student’s knowledge stops. Then our material does not play a fool’s game and pretend that a lack of foundation in math can ignored. We build up the foundational understanding that was missing. This is how “We Make Math Make Sense.”
On the instructional side, we work with kids face-to-face, using customized learning plans and adapting on each child’s individual learning styles. We employ both direct teaching and Socratic questioning in the delivery of instruction. That’s also unique.
What physical clues or cues do you see in children that indicate they are struggling? That they are “getting it”?
Kids of any age who are struggling tend to count on their fingers. They are frequently confused and have a defeated attitude when they attempt math. They’re semi-responsive and look down a lot; they may pull back from the table. And of course, their grades slip.
Kids who are “getting it” say, “give me another one!” after successfully doing a problem. They have frequent epiphanies. They look up from the table, look you in the eyes, and lean forward. They don’t have an attitude problem in dealing with homework.
Many people have asked you why Mathnasium’s curriculum isn’t being taught in schools. What was the reception when you tried to introduce it into public schools?
Teachers are doing the best they can to help kids with the curriculum they have, against all odds in most cases. But Mathnasium’s curriculum is more robust than school curriculum. So individual teachers and school principals greeted our curriculum with great acceptance. We got no support from school districts and various foundations, though, because their attitude was, “We got this.”
Many math teachers I trained in my two decades before Mathnasium existed continue to use elements of the Method to this day.
What did it take, on your part, to go from one center to an organization with more than 900 centers?
Guts, determination, and complete confidence that the Method works. Oh yeah, and money.
What are one or two assumptions people still make about Mathnasium that are just wrong?
They assume we only do remediation with students, but we also have a tremendous ability to do enrichment. That can be really fun, because students who are motivated have access to the incredible beauty inherent in math.
They also assume we are too expensive. They probably aren’t doing the math! Mathnasium students come in for sessions 2-3 times each week, which makes the monthly cost reasonable — usually less than a private math tutor. And certainly, we’re more capable of identifying exact deficits and building a plan to combat them for the long term than most private math tutors.
Mathnasium is undergoing rapid international expansion. What challenges does this bring to the curriculum and the Mathnasium Method?
We have to make sure that we meet the school needs of students worldwide without sacrificing the basic principle that “math is bigger than school.” Some countries have a very narrow focus, and we need to communicate that math’s application is bigger than the relatively narrow focus taught in school.
Do you have a favorite math concept?
The Fourier series. In the early 1800s, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier described how waves work in the universe. Its charm is that it allows you to take a complicated wave and decompose it into simple sine waves. This has applications in acoustics, modern electronics, and myriad other areas. Without Fourier, there are no cell phones.
Who do you look up to and why?
Leibniz — a free thinker about math and metaphysics
Einstein — a free thinker about the forces of nature
Jimi Hendrix — a free thinker about musical form, and the fact that he is the most creative guitar player ever. It is arguable who the “best” player ever is, but there’s no serious conversation about the “most creative.”
Ramanujan — the peasant Indian mathematician who tapped into the universe of mathematical thinking deeper than anyone ever has
Santana — has great guitar tone
Leonardo da Vinci — the most creative person to ever live — so far
You’re a guitarist. What types of music do you most enjoy playing, and who are some of your favorite musicians or bands?
I enjoy playing rock, blues, a little classical, and rock-blues-jazz fusion. My favorites are Jimi Hendrix, Santana, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Andre Segovia, and Peter Green.
Tell me about the ponytail.
At the beginning of 1999, Nic had long hair and sometimes wore it in ponytail. One day my wife said, “You’d look good with a ponytail.” We decided to try a “reverse Samson.” It worked!
Why does your Mathnasium shirt have a different logo than the rest of the company, and why do some people call you “The O.M.”?
In the beginning, everyone wore the “Mathnasium” logo. A few years later “The Math Learning Center” wording was added, but David and I had a lot of shirts with only “Mathnasium.” We informally decided that since we were “original equipment” —founders — we would stick with what got us started.
The “OM” is a derivative of “OG” (Original Gangsta in rap-speak) and means “Original Mathlete.”
What might people be surprised to learn about you?
That I’ll be 70 next month, and that my wife and I have been married 48 years. My interests include astronomy, astrology, and metaphysics in general.
Also, I have a 4-year-old Wheaten Terrier named Buffy 2.0. Buffy, as in “vampire slayer,” and 2.0, because she is our second Buffy.