The Myth of Ability

Mathematics education has a bad rap. If you tell someone at a dinner party that you are a math teacher, they give you a funny look and move away or they tell you their horror story of their experience in mathematics education. Mathematics is an important tool and skill in today’s technological culture, and is as important as writing and reading.

This book elicited a very powerful positive reaction in me when first I read it. Dr. John Mighton, a University of Toronto mathematics professor, has described his experiences in teaching students who had given up believing that they could ever “do” math. I thought that Dr. Mighton might have taken a page from the playbook of my own experience. Many students, and I might add many educators, feel that mathematics education is not for them. They do not believe that they can learn math, let alone teach it. My own experience of teaching for twenty-seven years in the high school mathematics classroom is also full of stories of students who were told that they did not have the gifts to learn or comprehend math. Thankfully, many of these students were able to overcome their fears and prove these naysayers wrong. These students genuinely wished to master mathematics, and once they were given the proper tools, found they could learn it just as they had learned to read and to write.

Mighton believes that all students have the ability to learn mathematics. As evidence of this conviction, he started his own tutoring business as well as a very successful program called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Mathematics Prodigies) Math. In The Myth of Ability he discusses the anxiety that many people have when it comes to mathematics, then tells stories from his experience of success with students who had been written off as unable to learn math. Too many people believe, according to Mighton, that there is a “mathematics brain” that you either have or do not have. Mighton wishes to dispel this myth not only because it is self-fulfilling, but also because it allows teachers to avoid responsibility when students are unsuccessful in their study of mathematics. To demonstrate his approach, his book includes a very practical unit on how to teach fractions, one of the most difficult topics in math education.

This is a very important book for educators, both those who are mathematics specialists and those who have to teach math and aren’t sure that they can. Mighton encourages all mathematics educators to go back to the beginning of their own education/ability level and begin building their competence and confidence for “doing” math and then teaching it successfully.

The weakness of Mighton’s work is the limited amount of research that has been done into his methods, something that is needed to back up the claims he makes. It is encouraging that the emerging research in this area does seem to support his work.

I would strongly encourage all educators to read this book. It may not change your life, but whether you are teaching mathematics or any other subject, it will challenge you to become a more positive, empowering, and enabling educator for your students.