John Mighton, a Canadian author, and math tutor who struggled with math himself, has designed a teaching program that has some of the worst-performing math students performing well and actually enjoying math. There’s mounting evidence that the method works for all kids of all abilities. His program, JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) Math, is being used by 15,000 kids in eight US states, more than 150,000 in Canada, and about 12,000 in Spain. 

According to the article by Jenny Anderson in Quartz Media LLC, Mighton has identified two major problems in how we teach math. First, we overload kids’ brains, moving too quickly from the concrete to the abstract. That puts too much stress on working memory. Second, we divide classes by ability, or “stream”, creating hierarchies which disable the weakest learners while not benefitting the top ones.

“The key thing about the JUMP program is it starts small and progresses in very small steps to a very sophisticated level in a relatively short period of time,” she said. “It restored confidence in kids who thought ‘I can’t do maths.’ Suddenly, to be able to do stuff, it boosted their confidence.”

The bigger problem Mighton sees is hierarchies. Teachers tend to assume that in most classrooms there’s a bell-shaped curve—a wide distribution of abilities—and teach accordingly. It means that 20% of the class underperforms, 60% are in the middle, and 20% outperform, leading to a two- or three-grade range of abilities within one classroom.

“When people talk about improving education they want to move the mean higher. They don’t talk about tightening the distribution,” Mighton said.

The reason this matters is that kids compare themselves to each other early on and decide whether or not they are “math people.” Children who decide they are not math people are at risk of developing a “fixed” mindset: They think their talents are innate and cannot be improved upon. Thirty years of mindset research shows that kids with a fixed mindset take fewer risks and underperform those who think their efforts matter.

JUMP encourages a “growth” mindset: the belief that your abilities can improve with your efforts. “The kids move at an exciting pace; it feels like it should be hard but it’s not hard, they have this feeling of progress, that they can be good at this..

Mighton says the problem with the bell curve is that everyone worries about the kids at the top getting bored. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better,” he says. And, by moving together and having so many children experience success in math, they experience a “collective effervescence,” the joy of knowing they can do it, rather than the joy of just getting a high mark.

You may access further information at the JUMP MATH web-site