We all know people who can’t do math. They’re better to take the easy math courses and drop out of math as early as possible. That’s what most North American teachers and parents think should happen, and that’s what usually does happen. The kids become adults who ‘can’t do math,’ avoiding careers they might otherwise be interested in, often passing on their ‘poor math genes’ to their kids.
In his Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies (JUMP) program, John Mighton has demonstrated that everyone can do math, even kids labelled ‘slow learners’ or ‘learning disabled,’ even those who are many years behind their age and grade in mathematical achievement.
Mighton himself—now a fellow at the Fields Institute for Mathematical Research, and adjunct math professor at the University of Toronto—was one of those kids who was counselled out of hard math courses early, so he became an award-winning playwright. (He’d also been told by his English teachers he wasn’t very good at writing, but he read a book that convinced him he could learn to write, and he did.)
In The Myth of Ability, Mighton describes his extraordinary successes teaching math to kids who’ve been labelled slow learners and learning disabled, kids who’d been achieving many years behind their age level in math. He shows how a volunteer with a step-by-step teaching method, a spirit of patience, and a mind open to the possibility of mathematical success, can work apparent miracles with groups of children who’d become used to experiencing failure. He concludes that ‘With very few exceptions, children are born capable of learning anything.’ (p. 2)
As a young person, Mighton believed that ‘The thoughts and mental processes of a great scientist or mathematician were of an order entirely different from that of an ordinary person’ (p. 10). But as he experienced success with more and more kids who were mathematically challenged, he realized that ability is not innate or mysterious. It develops with carefully scaffolded step-by-step opportunities to learn.
As Mighton trained tutors for his JUMP program, he thought about why he was having such success where so many had failed. He concluded that the atmosphere in the classroom was as important as the step-by-step method he’d developed: ‘In my first lesson, I told my students that many things in mathematics take practice and getting used to, so they should never assume they were stupid when they found something hard.’ (p.43) He went on to assure them they were smart enough to do well. If they didn’t understand something, he told them, the problem would not be their lack of ability, but because he hadn’t explained it well enough.
John Mighton draws many larger conclusions from the successes of JUMP. He sees that what’s true about math is also true about all other areas of learning. Even while there continues to be a myth of ability—a belief that some people are born smart and some are not—the fact that so many children are doing poorly reflects very badly on society, not on the failing kids: ‘If we cared about educating children, our teachers would be given more support in the classroom, particularly in the early grades.’ (p. 45)
Adults should be held accountable when children fail, not the kids themselves: ‘When a child fails a test it should be regarded as a failure of our system of education.’ A society that cares about its children ensures that every child gets a chance to learn, and become a full participant in society.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr Mighton’s conclusions. They’re supported by the growing body of evidence showing the plasticity of the brain: everyone can learn, if they’re given the supports and challenges they need along the way. For more on this perspective, and what it means for parents, go to www.beyondintelligence.net
For more about John Mighton and his work:
The Myth of Ability by John Mighton (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2003)