Teaching all children Mathematics may well be possible. That’s the inspiring lesson delivered by Dr. John Mighton at an April 24 Public Lecture, sponsored by the Mount Saint Vincent Faculty of Education, and attended by 150 curious educators and concerned parents. He is the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a Toronto-based charitable organization that seeks to “multiply the potential in children” and to instill in them the joy of truly mastering mathematics.
Mighton is an incredibly talented mathematician on a mission. Founded as a kitchen-table tutoring group in 1998, JUMP Math is presently challenging the prevailing math education “discovery math” ideology embraced by North American curriculum consultants and reinforced in textbooks and online resources published by giant learning industry multinationals, Pearson and Oxford/Nelson. Since June of 2013, JUMP Math is breaking out with new adoptions in Manitoba, Calgary, and Vancouver where teachers are looking to significantly improve elementary level student math performance.
The founder of JUMP Math shot to prominence in 2003 with the publication of his book, The Myth of Ability. Leading mathematicians like Dr. Robert Dawson, Editor of the Canadian Mathematical Society Notes, sat up and took notice. In the Newsletter, he compared Mighton to the classroom teacher Jaime Escalante in the inspiring feature film, Stand and Deliver. Both educators, he noted, embraced the idea that mathematics was “something that everybody can learn to do.” His book, he added, “may be a big step in that direction.”
The Mathematics Education Wars are fought on contested pedagogical terrain and Mighton’s JUMP Math is emerging as a logical and welcome middle ground. In his recent lectures, he makes a persuasive case for a “balanced’ approach, starting with fundamentals and then empowering students to engage in creative problem-solving activities. He’s clear in explaining the limitations of both “drill and fill” traditional teaching and “fuzzy Math” promoted by romantic progressives.
“Students must be empowered to succeed” is his consistent message. Beginning math instruction is broken down into tiny and carefully-structured chunks, that any student, working with any teacher, can learn thoroughly. It’s teacher-guided but also exploratory and provides elementary students with the scaffolding needed to possess the knowledge and skills to eventually tackle creative problem-solving. “Teachers are my heroes,” he says, because they are the ones who have driven the spread of JUMP Math, not the math consultants.
Canadians tend to be slow to embrace their own heroes and seek validation of their talents elsewhere. Mighton holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Toronto, completed NSERC postdoctoral research in knot and graph theory, teaches Mathematics at U of T, and in 2010 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He’s also a playwright and script writer, known in Hollywood for his star turn in the feature film Good Will Hunting.
Mighton’s JUMP Math has evolved significantly over the past decade and now boasts supportive classroom effectiveness research, including studies at Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. in Lambeth, UK, and at the Mabin School. While he was once “the nation’s math conscience,” Manitoba Education Minister James Allum now sees his approach as giving that province an edge over provinces like Alberta, wedded to the standard Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCAP) curriculum and continuing with “less successful methods”.
What’s standing in the way of Mathematics education reform? Two key factors jump out as the obvious explanation – the established “Discovery Learning” ideology and the preponderant influence of its proponents, the late Richard Dunne (1944-2012), creator of Maths Makes Sense, and his Canadian counterpart, Dr. Marian Small, purveyor of Nelson mathematics problem-solving books. They are a formidable force backed by the Pearson and Oxford/Nelson publishing conglomerates and a small army of textbook author replicators here in Canada.
Richard Dunne and his Canadian camp followers talk about mathematics but their real agenda is to promote a “whole school approach” to discovery learning. His distinctive teaching style, initiated at Reading Boys’ Grammar School in the late 1960s, uses concrete “manipulatives” to help kids understand math concepts. Based upon his theories rather than research, Dunne cut a plastic cup into 10 pieces to demonstrate the meaning of decimals and then developed other dramatic demonstration techniques to introduce children to abstract ideas.
Dunne was a teacher and math consultant rather than a mathematician. His earlier version of Maths Makes Sense published in the 1980s proved popular with teachers who were non-specialists, but was resisted by many university based mathematicians and then rejected by the British Government in 1989 with the introduction of a more rigorous National Curriculum. Panned in the U.K., his teaching methods enjoyed greater popularity in North America and his version of “Discovery Math” made a comeback in 2007 with the re-publication of Maths Makes Sense.
Dunne’s “whole school approach” was embraced by North American math consultants education schools seeking to promote “discovery learning” in all subject areas. Secondary school mathematics specialists remained skeptical and most stayed true to traditional methods, but Discovery Math made deep inroads among regular elementary teachers, often with little or no mathematics training. It achieved the height of its influence in Canada when the WNCP Math curriculum spread across the provinces, supported by the Pearson Canada Math Makes Sense series of books and online resources.
Declining Mathematics achievement levels from 2003 to 2012, on PISA and Canadian national tests, began to raise red flags. A WISE Math movement, sparked by Winnipeg math professors Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen, demonstrated the direct relationship between declining scores and the spread of Dunne-inspired WNCP curricula. In September 2013, Manitoba re-introduced Math fundamentals and approved JUMP Math for use in the schools. Over the past year, the number of students studying JUMP Math has jumped from 90,000 to 110,000 as more and more schools are breaking with the entrenched Discovery Math methods and adopting a more systematic, teacher-guided, step-by-step progression in their teaching of early mathematics.
What’s standing in the way of Math correction in North American elementary schools? Why has the “total school approach” made such inroads in the teaching of Mathematics in the early grades? Can all or the vast majority of students be taught Mathematics? Will Dr. John Mighton eventually be vindicated for promoting fundamental building blocks? Which of the Canadian provinces will be next in abandoning the core philosophy of the Discovery Math/WNCP curriculum?