John Mighton

This description of John Mighton's work was prepared when John Mighton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .

Introduction

John Mighton invented a method of teaching mathematics that inspires measurable higher performance across the board, along with major improvements in students’ self-esteem and attitude towards learning. His organization, Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies (JUMP) spreads this method among public schools that serve low-income students in Canada and the United States. In doing so it changes the mental models of teachers and educational authorities, lifting hopes and expectations for what kids can accomplish.

The New Idea

John is the architect and leading advocate of a methodology that breaks a vicious cycle plaguing thousands of mathematics students throughout North America: low student self-esteem and poor teaching feed low measured performance at school, which leads to even lower self-esteem and expectations for achievement. His programs directly improve teaching and self-esteem, turning the vicious cycle into a virtuous one and helping students beat paths toward exciting careers of intellectual achievement.

He founded the organization JUMP on the assumption that children learn better when they feel admired and rewarded. To this end, his method breaks down sophisticated mathematical concepts into very simple steps and fills classroom interaction with positive feedback. As the students make their way through the concepts, they are rewarded with more exercises after each success, generating a surprising amount of enthusiasm. With the support of a trained JUMP tutor, teachers create a playful, supportive environment that changes the existing negative attitude towards mathematics learning.

John’s work has started a revolution in participating schools—and most importantly, it has had a huge impact on student self-concept. In his programs low-income children who were previously labeled as low-performing math students have discovered that they can be as good in math as they dare. As they gain confidence in math, they apply it to other intellectual efforts, building confidence in school and throughout their lives. His technique has proven successful even among kids with behavioral difficulties and developmental disorders like autism.

By showing repeatedly what children can truly accomplish—even those that have been labeled as “problem children” or “slow learners”—John is changing the way teachers and educational authorities view the abilities of their students. The grades that JUMP students receive are accurate measures of their ability, showing that schools could set their standards much higher, and still help every child meet those standards. If they can all tackle difficult mathematics and succeed, the question arises: “What else might they be capable of learning?” John helps administrators develop innovative answers to this question, preparing the way for low-income students to become the leaders and scholars of tomorrow.

The Problem

In a typical North American elementary class, students are separated and labeled as either weak or strong students, especially in mathematics. As these students progress through school, gaps in motivation, ability, and knowledge grow between those who are consistently rewarded for their math abilities and those who are not. By high school, the majority of students have fallen into the second category, and find themselves struggling with math; in 2003, 80 percent of Grade 10 students in Ontario failed to meet basic standards in math. In low-income neighborhoods families often cannot afford to hire tutors, and students who fall behind rarely catch up. Many have trouble getting into a college or a university. They grow up with the idea that they are not as intelligent as other kids, and when the time comes to plan a career, they often settle for unrewarding, low-paying jobs.

The traditional method of teaching mathematics in North America leaves most teachers unprepared to manage the individual strengths and weaknesses of their students. They rarely introduce mathematical concepts in steps that the weakest members of their class will grasp, and few know how to inspire the confidence students need to learn mathematics. Students who have trouble understanding some concepts get bad grades, but rarely get the intervention they need to turn those grades around. Even worse, many teachers bring negative attitudes towards mathematics into their classes. Their own past failures and difficulties in learning mathematics haunt their attempts to teach it. Existing teacher colleges and government interventions struggle to provide them with the tools to make math class a positive and engaging experience for all students.

A great deal of recent research in early childhood education demonstrates that, with very few exceptions, children are born capable of learning anything in the range of human knowledge. Unfortunately, this research has done little to change the way children are being taught. It took the human race many years to accept that the intellectual inferiority of females was a myth, as with the presumed inferiority of various racial groups. John argues that today’s assumptions about the intelligence differences between one child to the next are no different and equally harmful.

Teacher education materials encourage educators to identify “gifted” students and warn them against encouraging false hopes among “weaker” students. Few texts and programs put forward the idea that all children should be expected to do well. Faced with low expectations, children take teachers’ comments and test grades to heart, and decide early on whether or not they have the ability to succeed in school. To their minds, a failure is their own fault, not a failure of the system. Without careful guidance from teachers and parents, they make self-fulfilling prophecies for their future, setting patterns that can be very difficult to break.

Poor teaching in mathematics, perhaps more than in any other subject, quickly turns a good student into a bad one. The myths surrounding the subject encourage children to give up the moment they encounter any difficulty. Because mathematical knowledge is cumulative, a gap in knowledge created in one year of bad teaching can keep a student from succeeding for years to come. Failures in math can easily become failures throughout school, driving a young person away from intellectual pursuits. As class sizes grow, the stakes for mathematics education raise dramatically; without excellent methods for teaching in public schools, gaps quickly grow between the rich students who can afford small classes and private tutors and the poor students who cannot.

The Strategy

John founded Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies (JUMP) in 1999 to close these gaps. His past success in tutoring remedial students encouraged him to develop a system that would change the way students and teachers perceived individual ability. When he first began tutoring, John was surprised to see the extent to which complex mathematics could be reduced to basic operations like counting, crossing out a symbol, or moving a number from place to place on a page. The cornerstone of John’s strategy was the development of an innovative method of teaching mathematics that could capitalize on that simple realization.

As he began his work, John conducted a rudimentary experiment with a third grade class. He convinced his friends to volunteer as tutors, and with their help he gave the class four weeks of lessons on fractions, followed by a week of review. John adapted two tests from Grades 6 and 7—three and four years beyond what these students were “supposed” to achieve—and found that all of the class scored over 90 percent on the final test. More than half of the students earned perfect scores.

Excited by this success, John founded JUMP to spread his method on a national scale. It has grown rapidly; since its birth in John’s apartment, JUMP has tripled in size each year, ballooning from 7 tutors serving 15 students to more than 300 volunteer tutors serving 2,500 students in July of 2004. In the last year alone, the organization expanded to two new provinces in Canada, began a program with a Canadian First Nations Reserve, and founded initiatives in West Virginia and New York. Its waiting list already has 300 schools, and it is growing fast.

John developed a vibrant training program to introduce teachers and volunteers to his method. He attracts new trainers from an expanding volunteer base and even from alumni, knowing that young people who have benefited from his methods will be inspired to teach them. JUMP is winning over networks of teacher education programs in Canada, cutting at the root of new teacher’s misconceptions. The organization plans to develop multiple training centers to spread his model and replicate it across North America and around the world.

No matter how fast his organization expands, John believes that the impact of his ideas should spread beyond it: everyone who needs these methods should be able to use them. In the pursuit of his belief, he wrote manuals for teachers and volunteers and published them on the Internet. With the help of the University of Toronto, he transformed these manuals into workbooks, donating the copyrights to JUMP. He published The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child in 2003, and it quickly became a bestseller in Canada and the United States.

The last pillar of his strategy is to reach out to the school boards, administrators, and policymakers who govern education systems. He wants to make a fundamental change by dispelling the illusion that intelligence and mathematical ability are fixed. He never misses the opportunity to speak about his findings. He is approaching the major stakeholders in public education systematically, convincing them one by one that all children can excel.

The Person

When John was only 11 years old, he came across two books that would radically change how he thought about mathematics. In one, two children construct a Möbius strip which enables them by some fantastic process to travel in time. The other book spoke of mathematically gifted children in pages full of charts and formulas. From the first story John gained the conviction that mathematics was a magical subject that could allow him to transcend everyday reality. From the second he read that he could become a mathematician only if he had a perfect inherited gift for the subject. When he received a D in calculus at university, he left his dreams of mathematical exploration behind and decided to drop mathematics once and for all. He became a successful playwright, receiving a Governor General’s Award for his work.

To make ends meet, John found a part-time job as a tutor. One of his first students was close to failing Grade 8 math. His teacher told him he wasn’t bright enough to do well in the subject, but John resolved to help him prove that teacher wrong. They made amazing progress, and the student eventually earned a scholarship to Waterloo University, even though he hadn’t applied there. Inspired by the success of his students, John returned to his own mathematical studies. He completed a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Toronto and won a prestigious fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

He had already overcome his personal prejudices against math; now he was ready to spread mathematical enthusiasm far and wide. For years, he planned a math program for elementary students. Through a colleague, he convinced the principal of a local school to select 15 children for tutoring. Several of John’s friends volunteered as tutors, and when the kids arrived at his apartment, they became the first of thousands of Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies who found inspiration through his work.

John gives thanks to his daughter Chloe, whose testing and refinement has graced the great majority of JUMP materials.

Updates

Featured in Who Cares? documentary (2013)