As October unfolds, we’d like to call your attention to a very special day in Mathnasium history: on October 1, 2002, Peter Markovitz, Larry Martinek, David Ullendorff, and Mitch Brown (Mathnasium’s first COO) opened the first Mathnasium Learning Center in Westwood, CA. With Larry as Center Director and four Instructors on staff, the Westwood center was to grow into the perfect testing ground and launching pad for the Mathnasium Method and the Mathnasium franchise overall. We sat down with Larry for an insightful conversation on Mathnasium’s inception, and his personal journey and life’s work.

MM: How are you feeling?

LM: Really great! When Westwood first opened, I don’t think I really knew where Mathnasium would be in 13 years. And here we are with 600+ centers in North America. We’re growing at an incredible rate, and it’s just stunning to see where we are today.

MM: What were you doing professionally when you first met Peter and David in April 2002?

LM: Oddly enough, I was teaching math in a school right across from Peter’s house! At that point, he and David were already business partners, and they had been looking for a math guru to launch the Mathnasium concept for about two years. One evening, Peter was talking to the president of the Board of Directors for that school and mentioned that he was looking for a math guru, so this fellow said, “Talk to Larry. I’d hate to lose him, but if you need a math guru, he’s what you’re looking for.” The following Monday morning, I got a call from Peter, asking if I’d potentially be interested in starting a math education franchise.

Vintage Westwood

MM: Who came up with the name?

LM: Peter did. The idea was simply to combine the words “math” and “gymnasium.” Interestingly, when you consider the roots of the word “Mathnasium,” the name holds such great significance, especially considering what we do. The “nas” in “Mathnasium” shares a root with “renaissance,” which implies birth or re-birth. As for the “ium,” words that end in “um” and “ium” carry a notion of “a place of” (think “aquarium” and “museum”). “Math” denotes “knowledge”—a “polymath” is a person who has knowledge in many subjects, while an “opsimath” refers to someone who acquired knowledge late in life. So when you look at the etymology of “Mathnasium” from this standpoint, it means “the birthplace of knowledge.” It really all came together.

Another fun fact: when we acquired the domain name “Mathnasium.com” in 2002, we didn’t have to pay anyone for it. 🙂

MM: At that point, how long had you been working on what is today the Mathnasium Method?

LM: Roughly 28 years. I started teaching math in 1974, and by the end of my first semester, I started creating my own material—so many of my students were behind, none of the textbooks made sense to them. I started cranking out worksheets for these kids myself on one of those old mimeograph machines.

MM: As we all know, the Mathnasium Method is the result of many years of collaboration between you and your son, Nic. Can you talk more about that creative process?

LM: In our household, we always found ways to be dealing with education, learning, and expanding horizons. It was how we lived. Math was something Nic and I talked about all the time. We would just sit and talk about math. It was all very organic and unscheduled. Our house was a 24-hour creativity factory.

Peter once told me, “You have the humility to have learned from a child.” That’s a very powerful statement and the best compliment I’ve ever received. Most people see children as these empty vessels into which you pour knowledge. From other teaching experiences—even before Nic was around—I knew that that was a false statement. I started observing Nic when he was about two or three years old. He had a peg board, and he’d put colored pegs down: one green, two red, four orange… Now, it’s not uncommon for kids that age to go red-green-red-green, but he showed a growing pattern—a progression. That was my first clue that an analytical mind was brewing in the head of my two-year-old kid. When he was four years old, we’d talk about fractions—and it just made perfect sense to him. At that point, he started volunteering all the stuff he was thinking on his own. When he was seven, he said, “Dad, if the world was the size of a basketball, our house would be the size of a flea’s flea!” He demonstrated a remarkable sense of proportion and scale. I know he definitely didn’t learn that stuff at school, and he didn’t learn it from me!

When Nic was about 10 or 11 years old, we spent a lot of time on the road taking trips to Northern California. We’d stop at restaurants on the way and use their placemats as graph paper. We worked through what would eventually become curriculum content on the backs of placemats in restaurants, when our ideas were flowing.

Vintage Westwood 2

MM: The Mathnasium Method is essentially a manifestation of your life’s work. Prior to meeting Peter and David, how did you think your vision would ultimately manifest?

LM: I’ll be honest. I had no clue. There was a point when Nic and I had all this material, and we didn’t know what would happen next. Something we did know was that there was going to be a next step. We were getting such great results with every kid that I worked with. I didn’t do this initially to start a business. I did this because I was a teacher. And as I moved forward and things started piling up in terms of having all this content—and Nic and I were cranking it out at a pretty good rate at that point—we honestly didn’t know where it was going to go next, but we knew it was going to go somewhere.

MM: So, when you found yourself with the opportunity to take your life’s work in the very concrete direction of learning center franchising, what was going through your head?

LM: Nic and I were absolutely sure that somehow, some way, our work was going to have an impact on the world. And it became so exceptionally real when we first opened Westwood on October 1, 2002. All I could say was, “Wow. So this is how it’s going to happen.” There was no question that the world needed this type of program. But, did we have that “better mousetrap,” and would our program and our business gain traction?

MM: Thirteen years and over 600 North American centers later, we all know the answer to that question! Tell us more about that “better mousetrap”—describe the evolution of our curriculum and education systems during those early days.

LM: When Westwood opened, we did have an Assessment process in place. Was it one that could be replicated? Not so much. A kid would come in and I’d sit down, have a 20-minute conversation with him, and give him a sheet of paper and throw out some word problems. Then I’d go back to my computer and print out about two months worth of work for him. Everything ran directly through me, and nothing was written down. One of our first priorities at Westwood was documenting processes—especially the Assessment process. I had Assessments that I created to use in my classroom probably about 15 years before Mathnasium. Over a period of months, I reworked the content to reflect more generally what was going on in schools at the time. Those were the first iteration of the Assessments.

We were also going through ways of packaging and organizing curriculum. We had about 7,000 pages at that point. That was an interesting task. As the end of the day, the Mathnasium model had never been tried before, so the way I see it, we were inventing the wheel regarding how to deliver this product called “math education.” Westwood was a testing ground for this structure. At one point, we had seven different types of curriculum, because it seemed that people wanted things broken down very granularly. It turned out that that was a bit too granular than was appropriate, so we finally collapsed all that down into the three curriculum categories we have today: Prescriptives, Workout Books, and Focus Ons.

As an answer to the issues kids were having as indicated on their Assessments, we created Prescriptives. We had other sets of material I had been working on for all those years prior to Mathnasium, work that was, in many ways, a flow of consciousness regarding math. These turned into our Workout Books, which are structured to help kids learn how to be good problem solvers and mathematical thinkers—in essence, build Number Sense. Personally, I feel that these are the golden element of our work at Mathnasium, because they give kids a chance to really broaden their thinking about math. They need to learn specific skills that are addressed through Prescriptives, but the broader application of that comes from Workout Books. To round out our curriculum offerings, and to make sure we had material not directly covered on our Assessments, we created Focus Ons.

Parallel to that, at that point, we were putting student worksheets in folders, but after a while, it proved to be an unworkable system. So we had a stroke of genius and decided to use binders.

Overall, our biggest fear in the beginning was that I was the only one who would be able to do this. There was this one kid in particular—his name was Adam. He would have his mom drive by really slowly in front of the center and he’d look in. If I was there, he’d come in. If I wasn’t there, he’d have his mom drive him home. That was a little scary, because if we were going to have a franchise model, it would have to be the kind of program that we could train others to deliver. Throughout 2002 and 2003, I started training Instructors and slowly turned Center Director responsibilities over to Mark Mitchell, who became Westwood’s second Center Director. As we went through these transitions, we became more confident about our ability to disseminate this model. By the end of 2003, we were getting ready to franchise. At that point, the Assessment system had been created, the binder structure had been conceptualized, and all the functional pieces we needed to replicate our teaching model were in place. Our first franchisee training started on January 11, 2004. The next day, January 12, was the very first day I trained franchisees. Poetically, this was Nic’s birthday. He would have been 24. Interesting how these things come together!

MM: To what extent does the first iteration of our curriculum and education systems resemble what’s being used in centers today?

LM: We’ve stayed exceptionally true to our roots. Jennifer Nicholls is doing a fantastic job leading curriculum development and our great writing team, and the material used in centers today is certainly better sequenced, structured, and organized. Our presentation is better overall. However, the content we’ve created over the years has always stayed true to the original construct that shaped the pilot version of the Mathnasium curriculum: we haven’t wavered an iota from the Number Sense triangle.

It’s our fidelity to this original construct—the way we see math education—that makes Mathnasium Mathnasium. As we develop curriculum, it always goes through that filter of the Number Sense triangle. This is why Mathnasium’s work has stayed extremely relevant, despite all the changes in math education over the years.

MM: How has Mathnasium taken your professional life to new heights?

LM: When we first started, I was very well known throughout West Los Angeles as a math expert. The stage I’m on now is much bigger. I’ve had the opportunity to present at Mensa. One of the people in that audience was a Mathnasium franchisee who later told me that people were really impressed with my presentation. Additionally, there are several videos on YouTube that present me as a math expert. At the Leadercast conference back in May, speaker Andy Stanley mentioned me in his speech about leadership. And that’s all in addition to having created a curriculum that’s currently used in over 600 Mathnasium centers. The fact that I’ve achieved professional recognition in front of a much larger audience—that’s the highlight of my life right there. It’s very gratifying.

MM: Which of your projects are you most excited about these days?

LM: On the content side, we’ll always be developing curriculum. Our team is amazing and Jennifer is doing a great job leading them. Right now, one of my biggest focus areas is Instructor training. As an individual teacher, I can affect x amount of kids in a lifetime. “x” is probably in the thousands, but that’s still a very finite number. The number of people now teaching the Mathnasium Method is significantly greater than it was 13 years ago. We now have tens of thousands of kids in the system, which means that on any given day, Mathnasium collectively impacts more kids than I could ever hope to work with in my lifetime! The real magic of teaching lies in the delivery, and over the next few years, I’m working on systematizing the way I teach in the same way we’ve systemized the content, and making Instructor training more powerful and effective.

MM: Final thoughts?

LM: In 2011, HQ moved from a 3,500 sq. ft. office to one that was about 10,000 sq. ft. Within 10 months of moving, we had to knock down a wall to expand into another office. Milestones like this reflect and support the amazing growth we’ve seen throughout our franchise system. In retrospect, the growth we’ve undergone at certain junctures has just been remarkable to me. It’s also gratifying, quite frankly, to have created something that creates jobs. From HQ staff to staff in our learning centers, look at how many people are employed because of Mathnasium’s existence!

Ultimately, creativity is what my life’s work is all about. The math is the math. There’s always going to be a structure to it. But the great thing is, you can always add to the body of knowledge and come up with a new take on how numbers really work. In that vein, the contribution Nic made to Mathnasium and math education was his ability to think about math in a creative and civilized manner. He had such a thorough understanding of his thought processes. Through Mathnasium, Nic showed the world that math is not just a matter of rote processes. The things that go under the banner of “rote processes” can be taught in a much better way, and the idea of “teaching kids math in a way that makes sense” all flows from Nic, because he had this innate sense of how math worked and how it should be approached.

Math and math education continue to evolve. In my lifetime, a completely different way to approach calculus was developed by someone at the University of Jerusalem. Regular calculus is called analysis; what this guy did was develop non-standard analysis. Most of the math we do is hundreds of thousands of years old, and this guy took what he knew and expanded it in fascinating ways. In a lot of ways it’s so exciting to see new stuff appearing—either a fresh take on something that exists or in a couple of cases, just coming up with things that no one’s ever thought about before. It’s just invigorating for me. Many speak of the idea of being “lifelong learners,” and in my case, that’s not hyperbole.