From:  Owl Canadian Family, Education Issues, March 2001, page 12




Fighting Defeatism: Misguided math attitudes

By Andrew Nikiforuk



John Mighton is the author of intelligent, award-winning plays and a top-notch mathematician at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto.  He also tutors so-called slow learners every night in a free program called Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies (JUMP), which he founded two years ago.


Since then, he's learned a lot about the troubled state of math instruction in Canada.  He's alarmed by the poor quality of numeracy teaching offered to most children outside Quebec (our math champion on international tests), and the defeatist attitudes of the administrators and teachers that excuse it.


For starters, the 43-year-old expert in knot theory (a DNA strand is a knot) doesn’t believe in math prodigies.  Mighton maintains that math is a logical and lucid language that anyone can learn with the right instruction -- an approach taken for nearly 10 years in Quebec, where only specialists teach math to kids after Grade 7.


The myth that only the gifted can learn math is both false and socially damaging, argues Mighton.  And it's one that well-taught students are shattering.  Two years ago, for example, he started tutoring a Grade 6 girl with learning disabilities who couldn't count to 10 by twos.  After two years of weekly tutoring, she's doing Grade 9 work. 


The secret to good teaching isn't much of a secret, Mighton says.  When teachers break math down into its basic components and teach one step at a time -- the numeric equivalent of teaching phonemic awareness in reading -- any student can become a whiz.  Teaching in tiny increments may initially seem like spoon-feeding, but it does get amazing results.  "After taking a couple of steps at a time, the students start to figure things out by themselves, and you see some amazing non-linear leaps in learning," he says.


"But most math textbooks and provincial curricula go from one topic to another and there's no real follow-up," notes Charles Ledger, an award-winning retired high school math teacher in Markham, Ont., who now teaches 300 students a week after school with his own program, The Spirit of Math.


"Instead of teaching problem-solving skills, the curricula focus on topics," he says.  That entails some jumping around.  Kids will be just nicely into fractions and proportions one week and the next -- instead of building on the skills they've just learned -- they'll be plunged into the triangles and trapezoids of geometry.


Most math textbooks also get in the way.  Ontario, for example, recently mandated two texts for its schools, Interactions and Quest 2000 -- both equally poor.  As Mighton admits, "I'm a mathematician and I can't understand many of the questions in Interactions -- they are that poorly worded and open-ended."


But the really big obstacle to math proficiency in our schools remains the educational establishment's appalling attitude to the subject.  "We allow these failures to go on because we assume some children are gifted and the rest will struggle along.  But when you see what kids are really capable of, this approach can only outrage you," Mighton says.


What our schools need are more teachers with Mighton's sense of outrage.


For more information about The Spirit of Math, please visit: