People Power (part 1)

I resolve to...share my knowledge
by John Mighton

People who find math easy don't always make the best teachers. The essence of math has become so obvious to them that they can have trouble seeing why their students are struggling.

I struggled at math myself. As a teenager I read a fair number of biographies of scientists & mathematicians. They always gave me the impression that a person had to be born with a gift to do math, & that someone who had this gift would never do badly on a test or have a hard time learning a concept. This was something I learned to believe deeply.

Like many young people, I would often give up on things because I was afraid I would meet my limitations. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I had the courage to go back to school to study math.

Ten years ago I was looking for a way to give something back to my community. It occurred to me that I could do this by trying to help kids who were having trouble with the math I was finally able to grasp.

Because of my own background, I wasn't inclined to blame students or think they were stupid if they couldn't move forward. If someone didn't understand my explanation, I assumed there was something wrong with my explanation, not with my students.

Many of my closest friends are actors who often have time on their hands & will do anything for attention. So I convinced some of them, even those who had dropped math, that they could be math tutors. We started an after-school tutoring program called JUMP in my apartment.

The JUMP program was founded on a very lucky accident. I asked the principal of a local school to send me some kids who were having trouble with math. She misunderstood me & delivered some of the most challenged students in her school, including a number of kids in special education classes who were performing far below grade level.

Working with these students has been one of the most inspiring things I've done. I'm now convinced the brain can develop new abilities more readily than traditional theories of intelligence allow, & that even children who face severe challenges in subjects like math are capable of far more than we expect of them.

Many of the students from the first few years of JUMP moved into academic math classes by the time they entered high school. Thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers & teachers, JUMP materials & methods are now being used in many schools in Canada, Britain, the United States & South Africa.

Most complex systems in nature show emergent behaviour: new & unexpected properties of the system can emerge out of nowhere from a series of small changes. If you add a reagent to a chemical solution one drop at a time, nothing may happen until suddenly, with a single drop, the whole solution changes colour.

I've seen this kind of behaviour in hundreds of students; they can appear to be at the limits of their ability, & then, with a single drop of knowledge, they leap to a new level of understanding.

Given the enormity of the world's challenges, I've often felt that nothing I did could make a difference. But thankfully, the world itself is complex & prone to emergent behaviour. If you're willing to take the first step, or add the first drop, the ripples may spread more widely than you could have imagined.

(John Mighton is a playwright & mathematician. He is the founder of JUMP, a charity whose goal is to reduce poverty by helping children succeed in math. CanStage is remounting his play Half Life at the Bluma Appel Theatre in January.)

I resolve to...share my knowledge
by John Mighton
NOW Magazine