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with John Mighton

By Laura Bickle
Photo: Chris Chapman

A profile photo of John Mighton

According to Toronto bestselling author and award-winning playwright John Mighton, everyone can learn to love math. His renowned JUMP Math ( program has revolutionized the way thousands of Canadian students are crunching numbers. In January, the US Department of Education announced a US$2.7 million research grant for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids), to compare his approach with other methods in Ontario. Mighton — who has a Ph.D. in math, a master’s in philosophy and is an Officer of the Order of Canada — hopes this research will change the way we’re teaching math.

Tell us about JUMP Math?

JUMP follows the Grade 1 to 8 curriculum and it’s used by more than 100,000 students in Canada. It’s a balanced approach, called guided discovery, in which students explore concepts at their own pace but receive a great deal of guidance along the way. We also provide specialized training and resources for teachers.

Every lesson is a series of challenges that gradually increase in difficulty [also called “scaffolding”]. Assessment is immediate (as opposed to tests at the end of a unit); the students get excited by their success and no one falls behind. Every time they discover something new, there’s adequate practice to help consolidate these concepts.

Why is it so effective?

If you scaffold the challenges into more manageable steps and give immediate feedback, everyone wins — you engage your students and their brains work more efficiently. If 50 per cent of the class finds a challenge overwhelming, you’ll never get the excitement that comes from seeing your entire class succeed. Respected psychologist Carol Dweck says that the JUMP approach helps children to develop a growth mindset, and that they learn to persevere.

You need to teach to the strength of the brain, as well as to its weaknesses. We can become easily overwhelmed by too much information, so we require some practice to consolidate concepts and need immediate feedback to remain engaged.

There’s plenty of research to suggest that our automatic recall of numbers is more important than we once thought. It frees up mental space we use for processing new information. You can’t see a pattern or make a prediction or an estimate if you don’t have a sense of numbers.

Explain the Sick Kids research.

We participated in a randomized controlled study with a team from Sick Kids and OISE/UT that showed JUMP students progressing twice as quickly as the control group. Sick Kids received the funding partly based on those results. This research will involve more classrooms over a longer period of time.

What might the outcome be?

It’s difficult to say. It’s happening at a time when the control schools are putting a real effort toward improving math, so if JUMP students do as well as or better than those in the control group, then I hope that the boards will consider giving our teachers more freedom to try new approaches. We won’t see progress unless teachers are allowed to innovate.