The Current

When 'math is accessible to any brain,' we can make better political, social choices, says mathematician

Canadian mathematician John Mighton, founder of the charitable organization JUMP Math, says math could be the key to solving big social and political problems.

Math could help people make more rational, thought-out decisions, says John Mighton

Mathematician John Mighton thinks we could solve a lot of political problems if we just learned math — and, he says, we can. (Chris Chapman)

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This story was originally published on Jan. 21, 2020.

If more people were comfortable with math, they would approach politics and social issues in a more rational way, says mathematician and playwright John Mighton.

"We had a financial crisis because people didn't understand what would happen if their mortgage rates went up slightly," he told The Current's host Matt Galloway.

"And we have an environmental crisis because people can't add up the consequences of their actions because we're so afraid of math or numbers."

Mighton recently published a book on the subject: All Things Being Equal: Why Math is the Key to a Better World. 

Math teaches you "to create arguments, to look for hidden presuppositions, to see patterns, make inferences," he says.

"We'd have a much healthier society if people didn't immediately seize on the first explanation of an event. If they were trained in probability, they'd learn to consider all the possibilities," he said.

"And more deeply, if people were confident in their problem-solving abilities, they would actually think deeply about the problems before they arrived at an opinion."

The making of a math evangelist

Mighton, who is also the founder of JUMP Math — a Toronto-based charitable organization promoting numeracy — wasn't always a numbers evangelist. 

In fact, until he was 30 years old, he didn't even think he was very good at it.

But as a young, struggling playwright, he decided to pick up a side gig as an elementary school math tutor.

From early childhood development right up to brain scans of mathematicians, the research is suggesting that math is accessible to any brain.- John Mighton

He ended up discovering he loved the subject.

"It was a revelation to me that by explaining the math and working at it over and over at my own pace, things that were mysterious to me became easier and easier," he said.

Mighton realized that for years he had bought into what he says is a far too common misconception: that math is difficult and most people don't get it.

"We have to drop that myth because at all levels, from early childhood development right up to brain scans of mathematicians, the research is suggesting that math is accessible to any brain," he said.

Teaching 'scaffolded problems'

The issue, Mighton says, is that math tends to be taught in ways "that aren't really well supported by evidence in the science of learning."

For example, teachers and parents often try to teach problem-solving skills by starting out with complex, multi-step math problems, he says.

But math, he explains, is more like a ladder than other subjects: "If you miss something, it's very hard to go on."

If those initial steps are missed, not only does it become difficult to learn those more complex concepts, but even young children will quickly decide they're not so-called math people, he says.

"There's research that suggests as early as Grade 1, kids know where they are in the hierarchy. They know if they're in the inferior group," he said.

"Once you decide you're in the inferior group, you stop engaging, working, you stop remembering things. Eventually you develop anxieties by Grade 3 or Grade 4, and it makes it very hard for your brain to work."

(Submitted by Penguin Random House)

Instead, he says educators should introduce math concepts in bite-sized chunks, or what he calls "more scaffolded problems," and then gradually work their way up to tougher problems.

"The key is keeping the student in a zone that they can be confident and think," he said. Mighton says he's been astounded by the potential of children when they're taught in this way.

He recalled teaching a class full of students with violent behavioural issues, "who were thought to be unteachable." Mighton taught them how to read binary code, and how to use it to do a magic trick. 

"They went nuts. They thought they were little code breakers," he said. 

On their third lesson, the children actually cheered when Mighton and his team came in.

"It tells me there's just this inestimable potential in children, not only for learning, but for a sense of wonder and curiosity."

"Kids enjoy doing math as much as playing sports or creating art if they're allowed to succeed."

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Julie Crysler.


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