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The End of Ignorance: Multiplying Our Human Potential

by John Mighton

Teachers who dislike or don’t really understand math invariably instill in children just one thing: a lifelong dread of one of our most important languages.

This cultural poverty has long appalled John Mighton, an award-winning playwright and famous mathematician to boot. Based on Mighton’s experience tutoring hundreds of children from diverse Toronto neighbourhoods, his 2003 book The Myth of Ability argued that almost any child can learn math well – providing that child is taught well. Amen.

In The End of Ignorance, Mighton takes a broader approach, tackling the wasteful and inefficient practices of Canada’s floundering educational system. He courageously examines why and how schools needlessly create and then discard weak students. In so doing, Mighton has provided the most intelligent and combative call to arms about schooling in a decade.

Armed with a great deal of new and very convincing research, Mighton points out that weak students are mostly weak because our schools have made them that way and then expected little more from them. Science, however, strongly suggests that non-achievers can become successful students with focused instruction, because the brains of young students “are sculpted more by their environment than by their DNA.” Mighton cites the work of Edward Taub, who challenged the prevailing notion that stroke patients couldn’t regain any more mobility a year after their stroke. He did so by inviting stroke patients to actually use their paralyzed limbs, while strapping, say, a working arm in a sling. Within weeks the patients discovered that those so-called limp appendages weren’t dead after all.

The same principle, according to Mighton, applies to children who fear or don’t understand math – or spelling, for that matter. Ignoring the subject or teaching it badly won’t make a difference. But informed teaching and the practice of engaging the student, usually in small steps, make great educational breakthroughs possible for almost every child.

The emerging science on what actually makes a good expert in a given field adds more weight to Mighton’s argument. It seems that experts routinely gain expertise in subjects for which they have no innate gift, not by drill or play, but with rigorous training that supports sustained progress. Given that the method works wonders, Mighton then asks an inconvenient question: “Why are schools so reluctant to expose children to anything that looks like rigorous training?”

His answers are profoundly disturbing. The reigning educational fad, constructivism, posits that children can best discover math on their own. (Constructivists would probably argue that Canada’s elites should discover climate change on their own, too.) They discourage training, practice, or sequenced teaching the same way Stalin opposed diversified farming practices in Ukraine, seeing such time-honoured traditions as outdated and even harmful or suspect.

A steady diet of mathematical constructivism can also breed ignorance: at recent development courses at two different schools, Mighton couldn’t find a single teacher who “could correctly answer a question on ratios and percents from the Ontario provincial Grade 6 exam.”

In addition to silly ideology, Mighton, a sort of Jane Jacobs for good math instruction, finds a number of other glaring professional weaknesses: a gross failure to recognize that paying attention makes the brain work better, and a profound inability to give textbooks “the extensive testing that TV shows such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues undergo.” There was a time, notes Mighton, when textbook writers “were able to get to the point of a word problem concisely and elegantly.” But as any parent with children currently in school has sadly realized, that time is not now.

The rotten state of math instruction has implications far beyond a general fear of fractions. Mighton believes – and I second this important argument – that a citizenry that can’t add and subtract very well also can’t respond effectively to social or environmental crises. A culture averse to math will trip over its own feet attempting to deduce something as critical as cause and effect, or the algorithms of toxins, let alone exponential growth in carbon emissions.

Ending the reign of ignorance in our schools, however, will take more than rigorously trained teachers or effective math programs (such as Mighton’s own Jump or Charles Ledger’s Spirit of Math). To truly end this professional neglect, citizens will have to address its primary sources. They might want to start by disbanding faculties of education, dismantling centralized textbook committees, and firing educational consultants who behave like heavy-handed tyrants.


Reviewer: Q&Q Staff

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 256 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-676-97962-6

Released: May

Issue Date: 2007-6

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs