The High Cost of Intellectual Poverty: How Myths About Intelligence and Talent are Slowing Human Progress, 2010 Hagey Lecture by Dr. John Mighton – Paul Kates

We had the pleasure of two fine speakers last week at UW, John Mighton and Eric Mazur.  Both had a good deal to say about what they discovered while teaching.  You can read about Professor Mazur’s talk Memorization or Understanding: are we teaching the right thing? in a recent posting on this site.  Today I’ll spend time with Dr. John Mighton, mathematician, playwright, author and founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies, grades 1-8).

John started his Hagey Lecture talk with some “big” questions about society:  What un-imagined problems could we tackle if everyone lived up to their unrealized potential in the arts and sciences? What changes could we bring to the way we live?   John’s example of a once un-imagined problem was slavery. We see its difficulty now, he says, but it was invisible to generations past.

He thinks about such questions because in his work with JUMP he sees untapped potential in children who struggle with and give up on learning mathematics.

John started JUMP because he found a way to keep all his students interested in and doing well in math.  This was a big challenge. John’s students were afraid of math and didn’t know as much math as their peers.

This is a common problem for many students.  Math has the reputation of being hard to learn.  It is not uncommon to hear someone say they are “no good with math”, meaning they don’t have a talent for it.  It is “understood” that being good at math is a gift, part of your DNA.  The result is that “gifted” kids get better and weaker ones fall behind. The weaker students think math is dumb, or worse, think they are dumb.

John knows this isn’t true.  He and his colleagues at JUMP have faced the most challenging students to teach, ones many years behind in math skills.  Students in this program catch up to their peers and turn into enthusiastic learners.  Teachers have tried JUMP in Canada and the UK and they like it, he says.  And, recent studies in the UK seem to show how effective the program is in improving math scores.

When the class is not divided into poor students and good students in math, when everyone has the ability to contribute, not just some, John has seen a group behaviour arise – a contagious excitement and enthusiasm that makes for a very receptive frame of mind for learning.

How is this done?  You need the book “The End of Ignorance” to understand how it works.  One key idea, though, is adding math knowledge and skill in small increments to continually generate those wonderful-feeling “ah-ha” moments of understanding.  JUMP is not rocket-science, says John.

What would a world be like where everyone has the math gene, or the science gene, music gene, …?  John doesn’t know. But, he wants to find out and believes he has made a start.

Recommended reading from John’s talk:

Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to
mathematics education
by Herb Simon et al, 2000.

The Expert Mind:
Studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other fields as well
, by
Philip E. Ross July 24, 2006, Scientific American

Links to more information:

* Hagey Lectures
* John Mighton (wikipedia)

Books by John Mighton:
* The End of Ignorance: Multiplying Our Human Potential (2007).
* The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child (2003).
(both in Google Books)

* Discovering Dyscalculia: The math learning disability.
Your Voice, TVO channel, January 2010.

* The Ubiquitous Bell Curve: What it does and doesn’t tell us.
Perimeter Institute talk June 2010.

* End of Ignorance.
Interview on TVO show Allan Gregg, December 2007.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Published by

Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (

Leave a Reply