Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ending Ignorance (part 1)

A couple of months ago, I came across an article in the New York Times, titled "A Better Way to Teach Math" lauding a new pedagogical approach called JUMP Math, used so far mostly in Canadian schools, that has proven very successful.

John Mighton, the founder of the successful JUMP math program, has written a couple of books. Interested in finding out more about his experiences and thoughts on education, I read through one of them, called "The End of Ignorance."

Mighton's principal contention is that everyone can do well at any subject, learn anything. This is the refreshing premise behind the JUMP program, that there is no fundamental reason for any student to do poorly in math at any level at school.

You only have to think about this for a second to realize what a shockingly controversial statement this is in our society, where the majority of people do not consider themselves mathematically "talented". As Mighton writes:
As a society, we are living under a vast spell or illusion. We have effectively hypnotized ourselves, but not in a single performance. It has taken twelve or thirteen years of school to put us in a suggestive state so that we all believe more in our limitations than in our potential, and it is difficult for anyone to snap their fingers to break the trance. 
Many people are convinced that there is a gene for mathematics. This gene seems to come with an expiry date, though, and most people can remember the year it gave out --- when they had a particularly bad experience with the subject.
People cling stubbornly to the idea that children will excel in a subject only if they are blessed with the right genes in spite of all the evidence from early childhood development that contradicts the notion of inborn abilities.
So what goes wrong? Mighton's analysis is that for successful learning it is crucial to proceed in small steps with incrementally increasing complexity, while maintaining an environment of excitement due to successes, rather than frustration due to failure.
Unfortunately, children do not have  the intellectual fortitude needed to deal with constant failure. Marilyn Burns has said that "success comes from understanding," but one might just as well say that understanding comes from success. Success is not simply a by-product of learning, it is the very foundation of learning. Generally the things that children can do successfully make sense to them, even if they don't completely understand what they are doing. 

(to be continued.)

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