Transcript: John Mighton: Math for All | Feb 06, 2020

Nam sits in the studio. She's in her early forties, with shoulder length curly brown hair. She's wearing glasses, a black blazer over a blue shirt, and a golden necklace.

A caption on screen reads "Math for all. Nam Kiwanuka, @namshine, @theagenda."

Nam says THERE IS A PERENNIAL ANXIETY AMONGST PARENTS, ALL OF WHOM WERE ALSO ONCE STUDENTS, ABOUT HOW TO TEACH CHILDREN MATH. BUT MATHEMATICIAN JOHN MIGHTON WANTS YOU TO KNOW THAT NOT ONLY IS MATH IMPORTANT BUT THAT IT'S POSSIBLE FOR EVERYONE TO BE GOOD AT IT. SERIOUSLY. HE IS THE FOUNDER OF THE CHARITABLE ORGANIZATION JUMP MATH... WHERE THE "JUMP" STANDS FOR JUNIOR UNDISCOVERED MATH PRODIGIES... AND HE MAPS THIS ALL OUT HOW IN HIS NEW BOOK: "ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL: WHY MATH IS THE KEY TO A BETTER WORLD," AND IT BRINGS JOHN MIGHTON TO OUR STUDIO.

John is in his late forties, clean-shaven, with short gray hair. He's wearing a black suit and shirt. A picture of his book appears briefly on screen. The cover is white, with an image of a person seen from behind as they graffiti a wall with math symbols.

Nam continues SO NICE TO HAVE YOU HERE.

John says THANK YOU.

Nam says FANTASTIC LITTLE BOOK.

John says OH, THANK YOU.

Nam says FULL OF SO MUCH STUFF. SO YOU KNOW, WE'RE TOLD THAT WE CAN BE GOOD IN THE ARTS OR SCIENCES, BUT NOT BOTH. BUT YOU'RE A MATHEMATICIAN AND AN AWARD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT. HOW CAN THAT BE?

The caption changes to "John Mighton. Author, 'All things being equal.'"

John says WELL, YOU KNOW, I THINK HUMANS ARE PRETTY IGNORANT WHEN IT COMES TO OBSERVING OURSELVES. 50 YEARS AGO PEOPLE... A LOT OF PEOPLE THOUGHT WOMEN COULDN'T DO MATH, WHICH IS JUST NONSENSE, AND THEY HAD SLAVERY 150 YEARS AGO OR LESS. WE LOOK AT PEOPLE WHO CAN'T DO SOMETHING, AND WE ASSUME EITHER THEY'RE NOT SUITED FOR IT OR DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT CAPACITY OR INTELLIGENCE TO DO IT

Nam says IS THAT WHAT YOU MEAN WHEN YOU SAY MATH CAN ALLOW US TO THINK OR ACT IN MORE RATIONAL WAYS?

John says OH, YEAH, IT'S HARD TO CREATE FAKE NEWS IN MATH. EVERYONE CAN AGREE ON MATH BECAUSE IT CAN BE PRODUCED TO PRINCIPLES THAT... REDUCED TO PRINCIPLES THAT EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS, AND THAT'S WHAT THE RESEARCH IS SAYING. MATH SHOULD BE ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYBODY, AND WE WOULD HAVE MUCH HEALTHIER POLITICAL DEBATES IF PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD PROBABILITY RISK, HOW TO CONSTRUCT SOUND ARGUMENTS. WE WOULD HAVE A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WORLD AND POLITICAL SYSTEM IF PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD MATHEMATICS

Nam says YOU TALK IN YOUR BOOK AT HOW PEOPLE HAVE THIS ASSUMPTION THAT TO BE GOOD AT MATH YOU NEED TO HAVE SOME SORT OF INNATE MATH SENSE THAT CAN'T BE TAUGHT. WHERE DOES THAT IDEA COME FROM?

The caption changes to "Academic hierarchies."

John says WELL, I THINK BECAUSE IT'S PRETTY EASY TO STRUGGLE IN MATH, ONCE YOU FALL BEHIND IT'S OFTEN HARD TO CATCH UP. YOU CAN FAKE IT IN A LOT OF OTHER SUBJECTS AND GET BY, BUT IN MATHEMATICS, ONCE YOU FALL BEHIND, UNLESS YOU GET A TUTOR OR SOMEONE TO HELP YOU, YOU'RE PROBABLY NOT GOING TO CATCH UP, AND VERY EARLY KIDS START COMPARING THEMSELVES TO EACH OTHER AND DECIDING WHO'S SMART AND WHO ISN'T.

Nam says HOW EARLY DO THEY DO THIS?

John says WELL, BY GRADE ONE THEY KNOW IF A TEACHER HAS DIFFERENT EXPECTATIONS OF THEM, EVEN IF IT'S A GREAT TEACHER. WE'RE VERY GOOD AT KNOWING WHERE WE ARE IN A PECKING ORDER AT A VERY EARLY AGE

Nam says AND ONCE WE FIGURE THAT OUT, WHAT HAPPENS THEN?

The caption changes to "John Mighton, @johnmighton."

John says ONCE YOU DECIDE FROM YOUR INFERIOR GROUP, YOU STOP WORKING HARD, YOU MAKE EXCUSES. EVENTUALLY YOU EVEN START DEVELOPING ANXIETIES ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU'RE FALLING BEHIND AND YOU CAN'T DO WELL. AND SO IT'S A VICIOUS CYCLE BECAUSE THEN YOUR BRAIN DOESN'T WORK. YOU CAN'T REMEMBER ANYTHING. YOU CAN'T ENGAGE OR REALLY THINK THROUGH PROBLEMS. IT'S A TERRIBLE CYCLE TO FALL INTO.

Nam says YOU WRITE SOMETHING THAT'S REALLY INTERESTING TO ME. YOU WRITE THAT EVERYTHING IN OUR PRESENT EDUCATION SYSTEM "SEEMS DESIGNED TO MAKE REAL KNOWLEDGE SCARCE AND KEEP THE DEEPEST IDEAS OUT OF THE HANDS OF ALL BUT A FEW." WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?

John says WELL, IF YOU LOOK IN ANY SUBJECT, MATH, FOR INSTANCE, WE DID ONE STUDY WHERE AS EARLY AS GRADE 5, EVEN IN A REALLY STRONG PRIVATE SCHOOL, THERE WAS A THREE GRADE LEVEL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TOP AND BOTTOM STUDENTS, AND PARENTS ARE PAYING MONEY TO PRODUCE THAT DIFFERENCE, AND THIS IS UNIVERSAL EVERYWHERE. YOU HAVE THE HIGH FLYERS AND THE KIDS THAT ARE STRUGGLING. A YEAR LATER, AND THIS WAS REPORTED IN "THE NEW YORK TIMES," YOU KNOW, WE EQUALIZED THE CLASSROOM. THE TEACHER MADE EVERYONE FEEL EQUAL AND A YEAR LATER THE LOWEST MARK WAS IN THE 95TH PERCENTILE, AVERAGING IN THE 98TH. THE BELL CURVE IS COMPLETELY CLOSED. SO WE HAVE THIS MYTH THAT IN EVERY SUBJECT THERE'S ALWAYS GOING TO BE HIGH ACHIEVERS AND THE REST OF US CAN PICK ANOTHER SUBJECT OR JUST GET BY.

Nam says THEN I'M GUESSING THAT LEADS... BECAUSE WE HAVE THIS SYSTEM RIGHT NOW WHERE, YOU KNOW, STUDENTS WHO... OR IT'S NOT ACTUALLY JUST MATH. IT COULD BE ANY SUBJECT. THEY TEND TO BE STREAMED TO A LOWER LEVEL. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT EDUCATORS BELIEVE THAT'S THE THING TO DO?

The caption changes to "Connect with us: Twitter: @theagenda; Facebook, agendaconnect@tvo.org, Instagram."

John says WELL, YOU KNOW, IT'S A COMPLICATED PROBLEM BECAUSE IT DOES MAKE SENSE. IF YOU'VE FALLEN BEHIND, THE RESEARCH SAYS YOU NEED TO BE GIVEN A REVIEW AND YOU NEED TO HAVE THE BASIC CONCEPTUAL BUILDING BLOCKS, YOU KNOW, BUILT UP SO YOU CAN UNDERSTAND MORE COMPLEX THINGS. SO YOU NEED TO DO THAT. AND THAT'S I THINK WHY KIDS GET STREAMED. BUT IT'S, AGAIN, A VICIOUS CYCLE, BECAUSE ONCE THEY GET STREAMED THEY STOP ENGAGING. WE'VE SHOWN THAT YOU CAN DO THAT REVIEW UP TO GRADE 8. WE'VE SHOWN YOU CAN EMBED THAT REVIEW RIGHT INTO REGULAR LESSONS AND VERY QUICKLY IN ANY AREA AND GET UP TO GRADE LEVEL. WE'VE DEMONSTRATED OVER AND OVER AGAIN THAT THIS IS POSSIBLE, AND THAT'S THE ONLY SUBJECT THAT... I MEAN, I ONCE TAUGHT A GRADE 6 CLASS WHERE MANY OF THE KIDS WERE THREE YEARS BEHIND. BY THE END THEY WERE ALL HAPPILY ENGAGING IN PROBLEM SOLVING

Nam says WHAT DID YOU DO THAT WAS DIFFERENT?

John says I CAUGHT THE FEW THINGS THAT WERE MISSING. I'LL GIVE YOU A XAN EXAMPLE. I ASKED THEM TO MAKE ALL RECTANGLES OF PERIMETER 12. IF YOU REMEMBER PERIMETER, THAT'S DISTANCE AROUND.

Nam says I JUST GOT A LOT OF ANXIETY.

John says I WAS GOING TO DO SOME MORE COMPLICATED PROBLEMS, BUT I GOT A HUGE SHOCK. 20 percent OF THE KIDS DRAW ONE SIDE ONE LONG AND THEN MAKE THE OTHER SIDE 11. THEY GOT... THEY DIDN'T KNOW HOW PERIMETER WRAPPED AROUND. I JUST HAD TO CATCH THAT AND A COUPLE OTHER MISCONCEPTIONS AND THEY WERE ALL WORKING AT GRADE LEVEL. NOW IF THERE'S READING, THERE'S NO WAY I COULD GET THEM READING AT THE SAME LEVEL IN ONE CLASS. I ARGUE IN THE BOOK THAT MATH IS THE PERFECT TOOL FOR EQUALIZING THE CLASSROOMS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. PROVED 100 YEARS AGO THAT ALL MATHS CAN BE REDUCED TO STEPS THAT ANY BRAIN CAN UNDERSTAND. MATHEMATICIANS THOUGHT THEY WERE USING HIGH LEVEL PROCESSING AND LANGUAGE AREAS OF THE BRAIN. IT TURNS OUT MATHEMATICIANS LIKE MYSELF ARE USING A VERY PRIMITIVE PART OF THE BRAIN THAT HAS THE SAME SENSE OF SPACE AND NUMBER THAT KINDERGARTEN KIDS DO. WHY IS MATH INACCESSIBLE TO EVERYBODY?

Nam says I WANT TO PICK UP ON THAT COMMENT YOU MADE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE. ALLOW CAN MATH HELP TO CREATE A MORE EQUITABLE AND CIVIL AND PROSPEROUS SOCIETY?

John says IT STARTS RIGHT IN THE CLASSROOM. I ONCE TAUGHT A BEHAVIOURAL CLASS IN A VERY VIOLENT INNER CITY SCHOOL, LONDON, AND I TAUGHT THE KIDS HOW TO READ BINARY CODES. THEY WENT NUTS. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME SOMEONE TREATED... IT WAS ADVANCED MATH, AND THEY WANTED LONGER AND LONGER CODES, AND ON THE THIRD LESSON WHEN WE CAME IN, WE WERE DOING FRACTIONS. THE KIDS CHEERED. AND THESE ARE KIDS WHO WERE THOUGHT TO BE UNTEACHABLE. SO WITHIN THREE LESSONS THESE KIDS WERE TOTALLY ENGAGED. THEIR BEHAVIOUR HAD CHANGED, AND THEY WERE STARTING TO THINK AND BE PROUD OF THEMSELVES. SO THAT'S THE FIRST STEP, IS IF YOU CAN EMPOWER KIDS TO THINK THEY CAN LEARN ANYTHING TO SOLVE ANY PROBLEM, THEN THEY'RE GOING TO HAVE A DIFFERENT ACADEMIC TRAJECTORY, AND YOU KNOW, THE RESEARCH CONNECTS NUMERACY TO HEALTH OUTCOMES, TO YOUR FINANCIAL HEALTH, THE HEALTH OF THE ECONOMY. IF WE MADE THE SAME KIND OF INVESTMENT WE'RE MAKING IN LITERACY, AND ALSO ENABLED TEACHERS TO USE EVIDENCE-BASED METHODS OF TEACHING, WE WOULD JUST DRAMATICALLY CHANGE PEOPLE'S PROSPECTS IN LIFE.

Nam says THE PEOPLE WHO SEEM TO GET THE BLAME FOR OUR CHILDREN NOT UNDERSTANDING MATH ARE TEACHERS. IS IT FAIR FOR OUR TEACHERS TO BE BLAMED FOR THAT?

The caption changes to "Teaching technique."

John says NO, AND WE'VE WORKED WITH THOUSANDS OF TEACHERS IN JUMP MATH, AND I CAN GUARANTEE THAT TEACHERS WANT TO HELP THEIR KIDS, AND THEY WANT METHODS OF TEACHING THAT MAKES SENSE TO THEM. THERE'S NOT ENOUGH FREEDOM FOR TEACHERS TO SELECT THE METHOD THEY'RE GOING TO USE, AND TO SELECT METHODS THAT ARE BASED ON REALLY RIGOROUS RESEARCH. IN JUMP WE PARTICIPATED IN TWO RANDOMIZED CONTROL TRIALS. IF YOUR PROGRAM ISN'T WILLING TO UNDERGO THAT KIND OF RESEARCH, THEN YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL. YOU KNOW, SCHOOL SYSTEMS HAVE TO BE CAREFUL WHEN THEY INSIST THAT TEACHERS USE THESE PROGRAMS. SO TEACHERS AREN'T TO BLAME, AND WE'VE SEEN THAT WHEN THEY ARE ALLOWED TO USE EVIDENCE-BASED METHODS, THEY GET PHENOMENAL RESULTS

Nam says AND YOU WRITE ABOUT STRUCTURED INQUIRY. WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT... WHY DO YOU THINK IT'S THE WAY TO TEACH MATH THE BEST?

John says WELL, THE RESEARCH IN COGNITIVE SCIENCE HAS SHOWN THAT WE SUFFER FROM COGNITIVE OVERLOAD. EVEN ME, I CAN'T DEAL WITH ONE OR TWO THINGS AT A TIME WHEN I'M LEARNING MATH, AND I'M A MATHEMATICIAN. WE NEED MORE PRACTICE, AND PRACTICE DOESN'T HAVE TO BE DRILLING KIDS. IF YOU MAKE PRACTICE INTERESTING, WHERE THEY ARE ALWAYS SOLVING ONE PROBLEM AND GOING ON TO THE NEXT, THEY WILL PRACTICE FOREVER IN MATH. THEY LOVE DOING MATH. SO IF WE TEACH IN A WAY THAT DOESN'T OVERWHELM THE BRAIN AND WE KEEP KIDS IN A ZONE WHERE THEY CAN STRUGGLE BUT NOT TOO MUCH, AND WHERE THEY CAN... THEIR BRAINS CAN WORK EFFICIENTLY, THEN EVERYONE CAN LEARN, AND SO STRUCTURED INQUIRY MEANS ALWAYS ASKING KIDS QUESTIONS. THEY ARE DOING THE THINKING, NOT YOU AS THE TEACHER, BUT MAKING SURE THOSE QUESTIONS ARE STRUCTURED SO THAT THEY CAN MAKE A CONNECTION OR DISCOVERY AND MOVE ON TO THE NEXT THING. AND CONSOLIDATE THEIR IDEAS BEFORE THEY MOVE ON.

Nam says WHEN WE TALK ABOUT COGNITIVE SCIENCE, WHY AREN'T TEACHERS MORE EXPOSED TO COGNITIVE SCIENCE WHEN THEY ARE LEARNING TO BECOME TEACHERS?

John says THAT'S A GREAT QUESTION. I DON'T KNOW. IN A LOT OF FIELDS WE DON'T LOOK AT THE SCIENCE, AND THAT'S STARTING TO CHANGE. THERE'S A HUGE MOVEMENT AMONG TEACHERS. THERE'S A CONFERENCE CALLED RESEARCH ED WHERE TEACHERS ORGANIZE THEMSELVES AND THEY ARE NOW INVITING COGNITIVE SCIENTISTS TO COME IN AND TELL THEM WHAT THE REAL RESEARCH IS ON HOW KIDS LEARN.

Nam says MANY COUNTRIES HAVE MOVED FROM THE TRADITIONAL METHOD OF TEACHING MATH TO SOMETHING CALLED DISCOVERY METHOD. FIRST CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT THAT IS, WHAT THE DIFFERENCE IS?

The caption changes to "Watch us anytime: tvo.org, Twitter: @theagenda, Facebook Live, YouTube."

John says WELL, YOU KNOW, IT'S ALSO CALLED REFORMATIVE, THERE'S A LOT OF NAMES, AND THE IDEA GENERALLY IS PEOPLE WHO REALLY PUSH FOR THAT WERE AFRAID THAT KIDS WERE BEING TAUGHT IN A ROTE WAY, JUST BEING DRILLED, THEY DIDN'T UNDERSTAND. SO THE IDEA WAS TO LET KIDS UNDERSTAND...

Nam says LIKE LEARNING MULTIPLICATION TABLES.

John says YEAH, YOU JUST MEMORIZE A BUNCH OF STEPS. YOU HAVE NO CLUE WHY IT'S WORKING. AND SO THE DISCOVERY MOVEMENT OR REFORM MOVEMENT WAS AN ATTEMPT TO LET KIDS THINK MORE, TO EXPLORE MORE. AND WE CALLED... YOU KNOW, WE CALL JUMP STRUCTURED INQUIRY. IT'S ALSO CALLED INQUIRY. I'M ALL FOR INQUIRY. I WANT KIDS TO BE DOING THE THINKING AND MAKING THE DISCOVERIES, BE UNDERSTANDING, EXPLAINING THINGS, BUT THE STRUCTURE IS IMPORTANT. QUITE OFTEN WHAT HAPPENS IN DISCOVERY-BASED LESSONS IS THERE'S NOT ENOUGH STRUCTURE. THE ATTENTION ISN'T DRAWN TO WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO SEE. IN CHESS, YOU MIGHT THINK THE BEST WAY TO LEARN CHESS IS TO PLAY THE GAME OVER AND OVER.

Nam says IT'S NOT?

John says IT'S NOT. IT'S TOO UNSTRUCTURED. THE BEST WAY IS TO START WITH MINI GAMES WITH JUST A FEW POSITIONS UNTIL YOU CAN SEE AND YOU CAN BUILD UP MENTAL REPRESENTATIONS. YOU CAN LOOK AT A POSITION AND KNOW WHAT NOT TO DO.

Nam says OKAY.

John says IF YOU'RE PLAYING THE WHOLE GAME, YOU DON'T LEARN VERY EFFICIENTLY. IF YOU PLAY THE MINI GAMES THAT ARE WELL STRUCTURED, YOU LEARN MORE QUICKLY. IMAGINE EVERYONE HAD TO LEARN CHESS. WE WOULD BE TEMPTED TO LET KIDS PLAY OVER AND OVER AGAIN, THAT WOULD BE THE WORSE THING TO DO. THE BEST THING IS TO GUIDE THEIR DISCOVERY, TO GUIDE THEM, AND IT'S THE SAME WITH PROBLEM SOLVING. PEOPLE GIVE KIDS THESE CRAZY COMPLEX PROBLEMS AND EXPECT THEM TO FIND THEIR LEVELS. IF YOU GUIDE THEM WITH STRUCTURED PROBLEM SOLVING, THEY ALL GET TO THE SAME LEVEL

Nam says THE THING I'M HEARING IS IT'S IMPORTANT TO HAVE STEPS AND IF YOU MISS A STEP THAT'S WHERE THE PROBLEMS ARISE.

John says YEAH, AND IT'S NOT JUST ONLY STEPS. IT'S BEING ABLE TO DRAW KIDS' ATTENTION TO THINGS SO THEY CAN SEE SOMETHING. IT'S UNRAVELING THE THREADS OF A CONCEPT SO THEY CAN PUT THEM BACK TOGETHER THEMSELVES. SOMETIMES IT'S STEPS, SOMETIMES IT'S JUST ALLOWING THEM TO PLAY A BIT AND SEE SOMETHING.

Nam says THERE'S THIS GENERAL IDEA THAT CHILDREN HAVE VERY DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES. I DON'T KNOW IF YOU AGREE WITH THAT, BUT IF THAT IS THE CASE, THEN HOW DO YOU MANAGE A CLASSROOM FULL OF CHILDREN WITH MANY DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES?

John says RIGHT, SO THAT'S A DIFFICULT QUESTION. KIDS HAVE DIFFERENT PREFERENCES, BUT IN THE BOOK I PRESENT RESEARCH SUGGESTING THAT THE BEST WAY TO TEACH THEM IS IN WHATEVER MODE IS BEST SUITED TO THE TOPIC. LIKE, YOU CAN'T LEARN A GOLF SWING BY WRITING A POEM NECESSARILY. POEMS MIGHT GET YOU INTERESTED IN LEARNING IT. YOU HAVE TO LEARN IN THE WAY THAT IS SUITED TO THE SUBJECT. AND THE MOST RADICAL CLAIM I MAKE IN THE BOOK IS BECAUSE MATH CAN BE REDUCED TO SUCH EASY CONCEPTS, ALL KIDS CAN LEARN AT THE SAME RATE. AND THEN YOU GET WHAT WAS CALLED COLLECTIVE EFFERVESCENCE. WE NEVER FEEL ANYTHING MORE INTENSELY THAN AN AUDIENCE WHEN WE'RE ALL FEELING SOMETHING TOGETHER. WHEN YOU HAVE A HIERARCHY IN THE CLASSROOM, NOBODY FEELS THAT MATH IS BORING. WHEN THEY SUCCEED TOGETHER, IT BECOMES INTRINSICALLY. I'VE SEEN KIDS CHEER FOR MATH, BEG TO STAY FOR RECESS FOR MATH. PEOPLE CAN'T BELIEVE THAT.

Nam says I KNOW THIS FROM PARENTS, AS A PARENT, WATCHING THIS, AND WE CAN'T BELIEVE IT. SO IF YOU WERE TO GIVE US SOME STEPS ON HOW TO HELP MATH BE EASY FOR OUR CHILDREN, WHAT WOULD THE SUGGESTIONS BE?

John says SURE. AND ONE OF THE REASONS WE WENT... WE WERE A TUTORING ORGANIZING, JUMP, BUT WE WENT TO IN-CLASS BECAUSE IT'S MUCH EASIER TO GET KIDS EXCITED TOGETHER. IT'S NOT ALWAYS EASY IN TUTORING TO GET A KID EXCITED. SOME OF THE THINGS YOU CAN DO IS MAKE SURE YOU KEEP THEM IN A ZONE WHERE THEY FEEL COMFORTABLE. DON'T ASSUME THEY ARE BEING DUMB IF YOU SAY SOMETHING... IF YOU GIVE THEM A COMPLICATED EXPLANATION, THEY DON'T GET YOU THE FIRST TIME. OUR BRAINS CAN ONLY HANDLE ONE OR TWO THINGS AT A TIME, SO DON'T ASSUME YOUR KID IS JUST BEING WILFUL OR DUMB IF THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU. I ALWAYS SAY TO MY STUDENTS, IF YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND, IT'S MY FAULT. ASK ME AND I'LL EXPLAIN IT AGAIN. AND THAT'S HOW YOU HAVE TO... YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE SAME ATTITUDE WITH YOUR KIDS.

Nam says AND WE... YOU KNOW, TO GAUGE WHERE OUR STUDENTS ARE, WE HAVE STANDARDIZE TESTINGS, AND WE ALSO HAVE THIS... THE IQ CONVERSATION. WHEN WE'RE TALKING ABOUT ABILITY DETERMINING ONE'S ABILITY, WHAT ROLE DOES STANDARDIZING TESTING OR IQ TESTS PLAY?

John says WELL, THAT'S, AGAIN, A REALLY COMPLICATED QUESTION. BECAUSE WE'RE WORKING IN THE U.S. NOW, AND ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS IS THEY TEST KIDS EVERY YEAR, AND SO WE'RE ABLE TO SHOW PROGRESS. WE'VE HAD SOME AMAZING RESULTS ON STATE TESTS. BUT SO THEY CAN BE USEFUL TESTS, BUT IN AN IDEAL SYSTEM WHERE TEACHERS ARE EMPOWERED TO USE EVIDENCE-BASED METHODS, YOU KNOW, THE STATE TEST WOULDN'T BE SO IMPORTANT BECAUSE YOU COULD TRUST EVERY TEACHER, AND PARENTS AND TEACHERS WOULD KNOW WHAT EVERY KID IS CAPABLE OF. YOU WOULDN'T HAVE TO HAVE THIS SYSTEM. IN THE SHORT TERM, TESTS ARE OKAY FOR MAKING SURE THAT KIDS ARE PROGRESSING, BUT IN THE LONG TERM, I THINK WE COULD LET TEACHERS HANDLE IT MORE.

Nam says WHAT ABOUT IQ?

John says WELL, IQ TESTS MEASURES SOMETHING, BUT THERE'S ALL THIS EVIDENCE SUGGESTING, FIRST, THAT IQ IS ONLY SMALL... ONE SMALL MEASURE OF THE THINGS THAT PREDICTS SUCCESS IN LIFE, AND EVEN ACADEMIC SUCCESS. ALSO, THERE'S EVIDENCE SUGGESTING THAT IQ IS FLUID, THAT IT CAN ACTUALLY CHANGE.

Nam says WELL, YOU TALK ABOUT AT LENGTH IN THE BOOK, IF YOU WERE TOLD THAT YOUR IQ IS X, THAT MEANS YOU CAN ONLY ACCOMPLISH X. SO WHY EVEN BOTHER?

John says YES.

Nam says IS THAT SOMETHING THAT'S HAPPENING WHEN WE TALK ABOUT MATH?

John says QUITE OFTEN... I MEAN, WHETHER IT'S THE TEST SCORES OR THE IQ, ONCE KIDS GET PEGGED AT A LEVEL, THEY OFTEN STAY THERE AND TEACHERS WILL JUDGE THEM THAT WAY. AND SO WE'VE DONE STUDIES THAT... LIKE I MENTIONED EARLIER, WHERE WHEN YOU ASSUME EVERYONE IS CAPABLE OF ACHIEVING ROUGHLY THE SAME THINGS, VIRTUALLY EVERYONE, THEN THE CLASS IS TOGETHER. THE NUMBER ONE OBJECTION WE GET TO THAT IS YOU'RE GOING TO HOLD FASTER KIDS BACK, YOU'RE GOING TO BORE THEM IF YOU TRY AND EQUALIZE THE CLASSROOM. IN THE STUDIES WE DID, THE WEAKER KIDS OUTPERFORMED... EVEN THE WEAKEST KIDS WERE DOING WHAT THE STRONGEST KIDS WERE DOING EARLIER. EVERYBODY MOVED FURTHER TOGETHER. STRONGER KIDS ARE BEING HELD BACK IN HIERARCHAL CLASSROOMS BECAUSE NOBODY'S BRAIN IS WORKING WELL, AND STRONGER KIDS GET ATTACHED TO BEING REALLY GOOD AT MATH IS NOT HAVING TO WORK. LATER WHEN THEY ENCOUNTER DIFFICULTIES, THEY GIVE UP. LIKE A LOT OF STRONGER KIDS DON'T SURVIVE IN MATH BECAUSE THEY DON'T LEARN THAT YOU CAN SUCCEED BY WORKING. AND WHEN THEY SEE ALL THEIR PEERS SUCCEEDING IN MATH, THEY THINK, WELL, ANYONE CAN LEARN MATH THROUGH PRACTICE, AND I CAN LEARN TO STRUGGLE. IT'S ACTUALLY BETTER TO BE IN AN EQUALIZED CLASSROOM THAN AN HIERARCHAL CLASSROOM.

Nam says WHAT ABOUT THE IDEA OF REWARDING STUDENTS WHO DO WELL?

John says WELL, YOU SHOULD BE REWARDING EVERYONE ALL THE TIME. I ONCE TAUGHT A GRADE 3 CLASS IN PARKDALE, A FRACTIONS UNIT... JUST AS AN EXPERIMENT THAT WAS WELL BEYOND THEIR GRADE LEVEL. IT WOULD HAVE KILLED A LOT OF HIGH SCHOOL KIDS. THESE KIDS WERE DOING COMPLEX COMPUTATIONS WITH FRACTIONS AND UNDERSTANDING THEM. THE KIDS IN THIS TEST BEGGED TO WRITE IT BECAUSE IT WASN'T A PUNISHMENT OR A RANKING. IT WAS A REWARD. THEY KNEW THAT THEY WOULD DO WELL ON THAT TEST, AND THAT'S HOW TESTS SHOULD BE USED IN MATH.

Nam says BECAUSE IN THE BOOK YOU DO WRITE THAT, YOU KNOW, WE HAVE THIS IDEA IF SOMEONE DOES SOMETHING WELL YOU GIVE THEM A STAR. BUT THAT ACTUALLY KIND OF DOESN'T WORK THE WAY THAT WE EXPECT IT TO.

John says YEAH, IT CAN. IT'S A COMPLEX ISSUE, BUT USUALLY WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO GET KIDS TO BE CREATIVE OR PROBLEM SOLVERS, THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO IS GIVE THEM EXTRINSIC REWARDS. I DID A STUDY ONCE, A SAD STUDY, WHERE KIDS LOVED TO DRAW AND THEY STARTED REWARDING THEM AND THEY STOPPED DRAWING. WE THINK THAT SUCCESS... YOU KNOW, OVERCOMING A CHALLENGE, STRUGGLING AND THEN OVERCOMING IT, THAT SHOULD BE THE REWARD. AND THAT'S INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATING, AND ALSO, YOU KNOW, I THINK THE GREATEST LOSS WE SUFFER AS A SOCIETY FROM NOT HELPING KIDS REALIZE THEIR FULL POTENTIAL IS THAT ALL KIDS ARE BORN WITH A SENSE OF CURIOSITY AND WONDER. YOU KNOW, THEY'LL DO ANYTHING. THEY'LL STRUGGLE ENDLESSLY TO LEARN TO WALK. THEY ARE DRIVEN BY THIS INCREDIBLE SENSE OF CURIOSITY AND KIND OF WILL TO EXPLORE THINGS. AND THAT'S THE BIGGEST LOSS. WE LOSE THAT IN EVERY SUBJECT OVER TIME THROUGH STRUGGLE BECAUSE WE ASSUME THESE SUBJECTS ARE IMPORTANT, WE REALIZE WE JUST CAN'T DO THEM. AND I THINK AS A SOCIETY WE HAVE A HUGE SENSE OF LEARNED HELPLESSNESS, WHICH IS WHY WE CAN'T TACKLE A LOT OF THE PROBLEMS WE'RE FACING NOW, LIKE CLIMATE CHANGE OR ANYTHING, BECAUSE WE'VE JUST LEARNED THAT THESE PROBLEMS ARE BEYOND OUR CAPACITY AS INDIVIDUALS. WE CAN'T THINK OUR WAY THROUGH THEM. WE CAN'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT THEM. AND SO THAT'S THE BIGGEST LOSS. THIS SENSE OF WONDER, CURIOSITY, OF SELF-EFFICACY, THAT YOU COULD SOLVE A PROBLEM. AND IT'S SO UNNECESSARY.

Nam says SO WE AS A SOCIETY NEED TO CHANGE THIS IDEA OF MATH IS HARD.

John says OH, YEAH. IT'S DOING INESTIMABLE DAMAGE. YOU MIGHT THINK IT'S FUNNY AT A RESTAURANT TO SAY I CAN'T ADD UP THIS BILL OR I CAN'T CALCULATE THIS PER CENT. WE DON'T KNOW WHAT DAMAGE WE'RE DOING IN PASSING ON THIS IDEA THAT MATH IS ONLY FOR A FEW PEOPLE.

The caption changes to "tvo.org/theagenda; agendaconnect@tvo.org."

Nam says WELL, YOU TALK ABOUT... WE KNOW THAT CHILDREN, CURIOSITY THAT THEY HAVE AND THEIR BRAINS ARE MORE MALLEABLE. WHAT ABOUT WHEN YOU'RE OLDER. YOU ACTUALLY WENT BACK TO SCHOOL AT 30 TO LEARN MATH?

The caption changes to "Thinking abstractly."

John says YEAH, I HAD TO REDO ALL MY UNDERGRADUATE. SO THAT'S ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT MATH. I DON'T THINK THERE'S ANY AGE LIMIT. I'VE TAUGHT PEOPLE OF ALL AGES. JUST GOT A LETTER FROM A WOMAN IN HER 70S WHO DIDN'T GO ON IN PSYCHOLOGY BECAUSE OF STATS, AND NOW SHE'S VOWED TO GO BACK AND DO STATISTICS.

Nam says SO AGE IS NOT A LIMIT?

John says NO. NO, THAT'S THE BEAUTY OF MATH. BECAUSE IT CAN BE REDUCED TO CONCEPTS OR STEPS THAT ARE ACCESSIBLE TO ANY BRAIN, AND THE RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT, THERE'S NEVER AN AGE CUT-OFF. AND IMAGINE... IN A FEW WEEKS, I ARGUE IN THE BOOK, THAT ANY ADULT, VIRTUALLY ANY ADULT, UNLESS THEY HAVE VERY SEVERE CHALLENGES, COULD DEVELOP AN UNDERSTANDING OF PER CENTS, RATIOS, BASIC ALGEBRA, ALL THESE THINGS, AND COULD ACTUALLY APPLY THOSE THINGS IN THEIR LIFE, COULD READ THE NEWS AND UNDERSTAND WHAT'S GOING ON, COULD UNDERSTAND RISK. YOU KNOW, WE HAD A HUGE FINANCIAL CRISIS BECAUSE PEOPLE DIDN'T UNDERSTAND WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IN THEIR MORTGAGES WENT UP SLIGHTLY. THERE WAS AN ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS NOW BECAUSE PEOPLE CAN'T ADD UP THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS. YOU KNOW, IF YOU WERE GOING TO BUY A CAR, AND 98 percent OF ENGINEERS SAID THE BRAKES ARE GOING TO FAIL, EVEN IF 2 percent SAID THEY WEREN'T GOING TO FAIL, WE WOULD TAKE A PRECAUTION. WE WOULDN'T PUT OUR KIDS IN THAT CAR AND DRIVE OFF. WE KNOW THAT... WE UNDERSTAND RISK IN THAT WAY. WE TRUST ENGINEERS. BUT WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE, WE'RE WILLING TO RISK THE WHOLE PLANET JUST BECAUSE 2 percent SAY IT MIGHT NOT BE HAPPENING OR CAUSED BY US. THAT'S BECAUSE WE HAVEN'T INTERNALIZED RISK OR PROBABILITIES. WE STRUGGLED SO MUCH AT SCHOOL. A LOT OF PEOPLE BECOME ANTI-INTELLECTUAL, ANTI-SCIENTIFIC BECAUSE THEY THINK THE NUMBERS ARE JUST BEYOND THEIR GRASP AND THE FALLBACK IS IT'S JUST FAKE. THAT'S A HUGE THREAT TO US.

Nam says WE HAVE ONE MINUTE LEFT, AND I WANT TO SNEAK THIS IN. YOU WERE ACTUALLY IN "GOOD WILL HUNTING." WE'RE GOING TO SHOW A QUICK CLIP. SHELDON, PLEASE ROLL.

A clip plays on screen with the caption "Good Will Hunting."

In the clip, John sits in a study with a blond teenager who looks angry.

John says MOST PEOPLE NEVER GET TO SEE HOW BRILLIANT THEY CAN BE. THEY DON'T FIND TEACHERS WHO BELIEVE IN THEM. THEY GET CONVINCED THEIR STUPID. I HOPE YOU APPRECIATE WHAT HE'S DOING, BECAUSE I'VE SEEN HOW MUCH HE ENJOYS WORKING WITH YOU. NOT AGAINST YOU.

Another man walks in and says HELLO. TOM, CAN YOU GET US SOME COFFEE?

The clip ends.

Nam says THERE'S A BACKSTORY IN HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED IN THAT, BUT WHAT I FOUND REALLY INTERESTING IS THAT YOU ACTUALLY CHANGED THE LINES THAT THEY GAVE YOU. IS THAT TRUE?

John says YEAH, I ASKED IF I COULD ADD A FEW LINES...

Nam says AND WHY DID YOU ADD THOSE LINES?

John says WELL, THE MOVIE GIVES THE IMPRESSION... IT WAS REALLY FUN BEING IN THE MOVIE, BUT IT GIVES THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU'RE BORN A GENIUS OR NOT, AND SO JUST TO COUNTERBALANCE THAT IDEA, I SAID CAN I ADD A FEW LINES, AND THEY SAID, FINE. VERY NICE OF THEM.

Nam says AND WHAT MESSAGE DID YOU WANT TO CONVEY?

John says WELL, THAT IT'S... YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE BORN WITH ABILITY. IT DEPENDS ON WHETHER YOU GET A GREAT TEACHER OR NOT, OR A GREAT SCHOOL OR THAT YOU'RE GIVEN THOSE OPPORTUNITIES. THEY DON'T JUST COME OUT OF NOWHERE. SOMEONE HAS TO GIVE YOU THOSE OPPORTUNITIES.

Nam says AND YOU HAVE TO WORK HARD.

John says YES, AND YOU HAVE TO LEARN THAT YOU CAN SUCCEED BY WORKING.

The caption changes to "Producer: Meredith Martin, @MeredithMartin."

Nam says JOHN MIGHTON, IT'S BEEN GREAT HAVING YOU HERE. FANTASTIC BOOK. THANK YOU SO MUCH. WE'VE LEARNED SO MUCH FROM YOU AND LOTS TO GET INTO IN THE BOOK AS WELL. CONGRATULATIONS.

John says THANK YOU SO MUCH.

The caption changes to "Subscribe to The Agenda Podcast: tvo.org/theagenda."

Nam says THAT WAS JOHN MIGHTON, THE WRITER OF "ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL: WHY MATH IS THE KEY TO A BETTER WORLD." THANKS.

John says THANK YOU.

Watch: John Mighton: Math for All