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Column: Is mathematical ability just something you’re born with?

A new method suggests anyone can excel with numbers – and nobody should count themselves out, writes Pamela Fitzgerald.

Image: dsb nola via Flickr

PEOPLE TEND TO classify themselves into two groups: those who are mathematical and those who are not. We think of mathematical ability as a character trait like eye colour, you are born with or without it.

From an early age, people label themselves (or are labelled by others) as being good or bad at maths, more so than any other subject. By the time students reach the Leaving Cert, that mindset appears deeply embedded. In 2012, only 22 per cent of students took Higher Level Maths, compared to 37 per cent in Irish and 65 per cent in English.

The decision to award extra CAO points to students taking Higher Level Maths in the Leaving Certificate has helped to increase the number of students taking the Higher Level paper (from 16 per cent in 2011 to 22 per cent in 2012). But for many, this intervention is too little too late. The decision to take the Higher Level Paper is made between 16 and 18 years of age, but many have implicitly made this decision much earlier, when they fall behind in class.

Furthermore, the bonus points intervention has had no impact on reducing the number of people taking Foundation Level Maths – on average 11 per cent of students in the last three years. Do we believe that after 14 years of compulsory maths education, only 22 per cent of students can master differential equations and advanced calculus in the Higher Level Paper, while 11 per cent of students can only deal with the basic maths in the Foundation Level paper? Do we believe that 11 per cent of students are fundamentally not mathematical?

Ladder

John Mighton, a Canadian mathematician, disagrees and passionately believes that any child can be taught to excel at maths. Although differences of ability will always exist between people, there is no need for the wide variation in performance that we see today. He believes that to effectively teach maths, it must be broken into a series of very small steps, which in combination leads to the full mastery of the topic.

“No step is too small to ignore,” Mighton says. “Math is like a ladder. If you miss a step, sometimes you can’t go on. And then you start losing your confidence and then the hierarchies develop”. All too often, children miss a step in this ladder and soon, the class has moved on and the gap in performance between children grows.

Mighton started JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Mathematical Prodigies) in Canada in 2002 to address this issue. The programme is based on a methodology that breaks questions and challenges down into very small steps – manageable, systematic strides towards success. Mighton terms this “guided discovery”. It has been running in Canada for nearly 10 years and is now being taught to roughly 86,000 students annually. Research supports the methodology, with randomised controlled studies concluding that JUMP is more successful than the incumbent Canadian programme at improving the mathematical abilities of students.

Most significantly, JUMP helps to raise outcomes for all students while simultaneously narrowing the achievement gap – the process is designed to ensure that all students advance together. In one school in Toronto, in her first year of using JUMP, a teacher lifted her class’s average ranking from the 66th to 92nd percentile, based on standardised testing.  In her second year using JUMP, she moved her next class from the 55th to 98th percentiles. As Mighton says: “They start developing a love of the subject and the interesting thing is they don’t compete so much anymore against each other. They start competing against the problem collectively.”

Transformative

Teachers also praise the JUMP programme, as many feel the sequential approach allows them to build up their own confidence and knowledge of the subject. As one teacher in Vancouver noted: “My experiences with JUMP has been transformative, for my students and for myself. I struggled greatly as a student from a very early age and since I began supplementing with JUMP it has given me the motivation, skills, knowledge and confidence to pursue math.”

In Ireland, much of the focus around maths has been our poor international performance. Between 2000 and 2009, Ireland dropped from 16th to 32nd in international rankings. Although our outcomes stayed relatively constant during this time period, other countries are racing ahead. While it must be a national priority to improve our maths outcomes, we must focus on addressing the roots of the problem, as well as using stopgap measures such as bonus points.

Mighton came to Ireland in March 2012 as part of Change Nation and performed a demonstration of the JUMP method to a class of students, keeping both adults and students enthralled. A shy, soft-spoken man, he relied neither on trickery nor sleight of hand in his demonstration; he relied on the JUMP methodology he has created over a decade, which is based on evidence and research, a methodology that he knows is effective.

As a result of his visit in March, a consortium of organisations came together to explore the possibility of launching a pilot programme in Ireland, which is now planned for roll-out in 2013. At a time when negativity abounds in our newspapers and airwaves, it is uplifting to see a group of private, public and social sector stakeholders voluntarily coming together to work on innovative solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems.

If you would like to find out more about the JUMP maths programme, please see details at Change Nation or contact: pamela.fitzgerald@gmail.com.

Change Nation is an initiative of Ashoka.

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About the author:

Pamela Fitzgerald

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