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Students at Massey Street Public School are photographed in the grade 3 and 4 classes on Jan 26 2016. In John Mighton's books, math is exciting and elegant, and it can both improve socialization and boost confidence in all kinds of learning.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: All Things Being Equal: Why Math is the Key to a Better World
  • Author: John Mighton
  • Genre: Education/Self-help
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Pages: 298

Like John Mighton, I was a terrible math student. Somewhere around Grade 3 or 4, I lost my way and never caught up. In Grade 12, I had to redo Grade 9 algebra. And while I’ve managed to work around it, more or less, my innumeracy continues to make everything from playing poker to measuring plywood a challenge. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve nonetheless spent almost my entire life telling myself, and others, that I’m not a math person.

But Mighton, an acclaimed playwright and the founder of JUMP Math, an award-winning charity dedicated to helping children enjoy and succeed at math, did catch up. He didn’t have as far to go as I did – even if he didn’t do well at first, he at least studied calculus in university and would go on to earn a PhD – but it wasn’t until he was 30, and began tutoring students in the very subject that bedevilled him, that he discovered how to tap his own potential. The problem wasn’t that he lacked a natural aptitude for math, but rather that he believed there even was such a thing as natural aptitude, hard-wired and fixed. As he successfully tutored kids who struggled with math, or who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, he realized that, properly taught and practised, everyone can do math. Everyone has the capacity for wonder that math can instill. There is no such thing as a math person.

This is the fundamental, empowering premise behind JUMP and also the general territory that Mighton has covered in his previous books, The End of Ignorance and The Myth of Ability. In those books, math is exciting and elegant, and it can both improve socialization and boost confidence in all kinds of learning. In his latest, All Things Being Equal: Why Math Is the Key to a Better World, Mighton endows math with even greater superpowers. Math competency can break down social inequality and simply make us better citizens: better informed, more curious and imaginative, kinder to one another. And, most importantly right now, it can help people see through the scrim of fake news and combat the bad actors – climate change deniers, nefarious politicians, tech bros – who exploit the innumeracy that, in Mighton’s view, still hobbles too many of us. “If every person’s gift for thinking abstractly could be developed,” Mighton writes, “we might also see that we have much more in common with our fellow human beings than we think. We could create a more equitable and productive society and improve our lives in ways that people who have never experienced the beauty or the power of mathematics can scarcely imagine.”

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In other words, math is a great, and underrecognized, tool of social justice. If you really understand probabilities, ratios and percentages, a change in interest rates might not lead you on the path to bankruptcy. You might better understand the context for a pay increase for teachers. You will fully appreciate the gravity of a change in global temperature. Most compellingly, Mighton argues that math, because of its abstraction and shared general principles, gives children of different economic means or education – if taught using techniques that, à la JUMP, foster enthusiasm, build confidence and emphasize deliberate practice – an equal opportunity to grow and thrive. It can utterly transform how disadvantaged children think of themselves, and thus, utterly transform societies.

It’s a provocative claim, especially when so many of our political problems seem so intractable. But it would be even more persuasive if Mighton spent more time developing it. While he marshals a lot of recent neurological and educational research to back up these claims – and to refute, bluntly, the claims of certain educational reforms – more of the book is devoted to specific mathematical problems and games. This is Mighton’s comfort zone, obviously, but much of it feels drawn from his previous books or can be found on the JUMP website. Other sections, such as a quick sketch on the power of “flow,” are shoehorned in. And while I adore Mighton’s optimism, it’s also not consistent. The whole first half of All Things Being Equal insists that math makes us better people, but toward the book’s end, Mighton retreats. “Many of the great villains of history, like the Nazis, may have been good at math, but they lacked empathy and couldn’t comprehend what it means to be a decent human being.” Similarly, knowing math, you could also argue, isn’t enough to fight climate change. Surely the fossil fuel companies that have spent decades obfuscating the science know their numbers very well.

At its best moments, however, the book is an inspiration. My seven-year-old son is almost the age where I started to struggle. But he truly loves math – the wonder and delight that Mighton describes is undeniable. And I think, as I do homework with him, that maybe it’s not too late for me to feel it, too.

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