Math Is Not Hard: A Simple Method That Is Changing The World

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Julia Moulden Speaker, columnist and author, 'RIPE: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50'

"Math is the easiest subject for kids to learn."

Say what?

Yup, that's what John Mighton believes. And he's got everything he needs to back up this counter-intuitive assertion.

Let's start with the commonly-held view. "Math is hard." Even Barbie said it. We somehow grow up thinking that either you're born with the math gene or you're not. And if you're not, well, good luck to you. Like most people, you'll begin to falter in grade school, think it's hopeless, and give up. Sound like you? Your kids? Your students?

What if there were a different way of looking at math? Well, there is. And John Mighton is its champion. This new way says this: every child can learn how to do math. Every child. And that learning in this new way opens the door to everything else.

Our story begins where it must, with John. In his thirties, he began tutoring students in math as a way to supplement his income as a playwright (more on that later). His childhood interest in math rekindled (like you and me, he figured he didn't have the math gene), he decided to go back to school to become a mathematician. Even though he'd tutored for years, before long he found himself struggling and flunked a couple of tests. Paralyzed by insecurity, he convinced himself that he had reached a threshold he'd never get beyond. But then he started to think about what he'd learned as a tutor. That if he broke things down for students into small increments, if they had a chance to practice and learn, they could inevitably continue. He realized that the same thing was true for him, too. This was John's first "a-ha!" moment. A powerful enough realization that he went on to earn his PhD.

Looking for a way to give back to his community, he decided to try to help more kids with math. One day, it occurred to him that mathematicians don't always make the best teachers of the subject, because math comes easily to them. And here comes the second "a-ha!". "Because I'd struggled with math myself, as a tutor I wasn't inclined to blame the student. If the student didn't understand, I assumed there was something wrong with my explanation."

How powerful is that? Eager to get his revolutionary approach to teaching math into the hands of teachers, John created a not-for-profit organization called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies). Today, JUMP is getting spectacular results with all kinds of kids. For instance, after working with JUMP, an entire class of Grade 3 students, including so-called slow learners, scored over 90% on a Grade 6 math test. A group of British children who had been written off as too unruly responded so enthusiastically and had such impressive results that the school board adopted the program. I could go on and on.

Here's one story John shares in his new book, The End of Ignorance. "Six weeks ago I walked into a Grade 4 class in an inner-city school and was surprised to see a body lying on the floor with a coat draped over its head. This student (a boy as it turned out) apparently came to school most mornings in a listless and depressed state. I told the boy that I was going to teach a very interesting lesson on fractions, and I asked him to please go back to his desk so I could get started. The boy just stared at me blankly, and neither the teacher nor his best friend could convince him to stand up. It was clear that I would have to start the lesson with the boy lying at my feet, so I told him he could stay where he was if he was comfortable. I also bent down and showed him how to add on his fingers in case he wanted to take part in the lesson. I showed his classmates how to add a pair of fractions with the same denominator, and a few minutes later, when the children were waving their hands to answer a question, the boy suddenly put up his hand and answered the question while he was still lying on the floor. I found it quite comical to see his hand shoot up from the floor every time I asked a question, but the other children didn't seem to see anything odd in this. After I had given the boy a chance to show off with several questions, he stood up and went back to his desk. He finished all the work that the other children did, and even asked for extra questions when the lesson was over."

Here's John being interviewed on Book TV.

JUMP offers an in-class program that delivers the complete curriculum for Grades 1 - 8, and it's being used by teachers in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, and the United States. There are workbooks, teacher's guides, and new releases are coming on board all the time - like "Math and the Environment", "Math and Art", "Math and Sports". (For analytically-minded readers, JUMP is being tested by third-party evaluators. See JUMP site for more.)

OK, so clearly learning math is within reach of every child. And that's world-changing all on its own. But there's more. In The End of Ignorance, John describes JUMP's methods in detail, but it's not really about JUMP or even math. It's about how we learn and how we can enhance our potential. It's about the barriers we place, out of ignorance and indifference, between the majority of children and their unrealized potential. So not only are the ideas behind JUMP useful for math, but they can help kids learn other subjects, too. They're learning how to learn, how to think, how to be creative innovators. As one teacher from the UK put it in a letter to John, "My students are becoming ballsy independent problem solvers."

Which is precisely what our world needs right now - all of us, not just children, but grown-ups, too. Check out Thomas L. Friedman's recent New York Times column for his thoughts about who's going to do well in the new economy, and the kinds of things we need to nurture through education.

I'm not sure John Mighton ever sleeps. In addition to JUMP, his books, his work as a mathematician, he's also an Ashoka fellow (I wrote about Ashoka recently as part of my series on the New Radicals - Ashoka, the McConnell Foundation and the Social Innovation Generation at MaRS are huge supporters of JUMP). And he's an award-winning playwright. His latest play is called Half Life (here's a review). I asked him what it's like to do such seemingly different kinds of work. "I've made discoveries in math that were influenced by my literary training and some of my best ideas in theatre have come from mathematics."

Clearly, "I can't do math" is a myth. "Yes, I can" is much more like it. Which is just the spirit we need to be global competitors in the 21st century. And to live up to our full potential as human beings.

Now it's your turn. Have you - or someone you know - struggled with math? Have you tried JUMP? Do you think we limit ourselves and our children? Please comment below, or email me - JULIA (that familiar symbol) wearethenewradicals (dot) (COM).

Julia Moulden is on tour, talking about the New Radicals.