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When people discover that we are homeschooling our children, I’m reluctant to divulge that I am a qualified teacher. When they become aware of my professional training, they assume that I “know what I’m doing”. But what about all those untrained teacher-parents tackling the education of their children?
Based on Toronto mathematician John Mighton’s* philosophy, “untrained” parents might be in a better position to teach their own. Mighton, who developed JUMP Math, claims that adults with a good grasp of a subject (math, for example) are in the worst position to teach it to children. Experts are so familiar with the material they tend to rush through instructions and explain seemingly basic concepts using jargon and often they are unable to detect the child’s cognitive level of the subject matter.
I grew up as an athlete and then became a coach. In my work with gymnasts, I was able to easily determine when my athletes had mastered a physical feat through observation. When I began homeschooling, I understood Mighton’s point. Cognitive development is invisible. For example, my daughter was not reading by age eight even though I had been gathering language arts resources and focusing on literacy. What was happening? Homeschool parents notice their child can read when they can read, but the journey to get there is sometimes elusive. In our case, our daughter struggled to read fluently until out of the blue she began reading Harry Potter. Was it because the story was so compelling? Did she wake up with advanced cognition? I couldn’t detect her progress like I could my athletes.
Parents who doubt their abilities should heed the words of Mighton, who also has much to say in his book The Myth of Ability. His philosophy can be broken down as follows:
- Break down problems into manageable steps
- Children cannot learn if there is too much new information
- Students must be allowed to succeed
- Create bonus questions that don’t introduce new concepts but look harder
- Focus on confidence-building
- Children experience joy when they are learning without the fear of frustration.
Breaking down problems might mean baby steps, even micro-steps, with an emphasis on building self-esteem, and using techniques formerly frowned upon (using fingers to count).
This slow build up, using micro-steps or “careful scaffolding” with a focus on self-esteem building is the basis for JUMP Math.
0 x 1 = 0, right? What about 0 x 5? Once the child understands the concept, move on to:
0 x 76, then 0 x 493, 0 x 6382, 0 x 6534783. The idea is to present seemingly more difficult problems to encourage them to think of themselves as capable, even brilliant!
This method works for math dimwits like me because I have to break down the steps in order to teach it. According to Mighton, I am the better parent to teach math to my girls than my math-teacher husband. He even goes so far as to suggest teaching arithmetic without any emphasis on solving.
to teach lowest common denominator, provide two fractions (½ + ¼). In this case, Mighton suggests that the lesson should not be to solve the equation but simply to practice finding the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD). The next step is to provide a list of fraction pairs and requiring the child only find the LCD, nothing more. The idea is to bolster confidence that the child can learn math. Solving can be done later after that micro step is mastered. In a workshop I attended, Mighton broke problems down even further, using the example of invert and multiply. He suggested asking the students to simply invert the second fraction and write the equal sign, nothing more.
Can this concept be used in other areas? Perhaps. Math is one of the most obvious areas to teach like this, step by micro-step. The point is, parents can gain confidence knowing they can learn right along with their child and may be better able to teach a subject if they must learn it themselves. There is less chance of unrecognized assumptions on the part of the parent this way.
I fell into this trap when we tackled French. In Canada, all school children must learn French, after all, it is one of our official languages. Even though homeschoolers in my province are not required to learn French (or anything due to the wonderfully flexible laws in my region) I felt it was important to introduce it as having a second language in Canada creates many opportunities.
I had achieved a BA in French linguistics, and after many exchanges in Québec and visits to France, I am nearly fluent, but I struggled to break down grammatical concepts because even though I know how the sentence needs to be constructed, I cannot explain why. Luckily, after spending so much time in Quebec themselves, the girls can speak and understand the language very well. I have the little francophone children to thank for that, but if I had been teaching Mandarin, we would be plodding along together step by step.
Mighton, although he was weak in math, took on side tutoring jobs in math to support his work as a playwright. When he realized his students exhibited difficulties learning or even comprehending basic math concepts (counting by twos) and also displayed significant manifestations of stress, he quickly adapted, first emphasizing self-esteem enhancement in all his communications with his students and then developing the micro-steps he and his students needed to succeed. Out of this, the program was conceived.
This is not an endorsement of JUMP Math as much as it is a presentation of Mighton’s concepts, to look at teaching in a new way. Keeping in mind that your child has never seen the numbers assembled in the way you are teaching them should guide your instructional method. The goal is to keep the joy of learning alive.
Mighton, who developed the curriculum for schools, has nothing to offer homeschoolers in the way of advice, of course. Some of us must cope with disdainful remarks about our capacity to teach a subject we are not trained in. Alas, I confess I fall back on the “I’m a teacher” to disengage from hurtful conversations about how I’m depriving my kids of (insert non-existent issue here).
So, ignore the naysayers and be confident that you are the best teacher for your children.
*Fun fact about John Mighton: As a successful playwright and mathematician, he was approached by the producer of the film Good Will Hunting to assist on portions of the script that were math-centric. Mighton agreed as long as he was given a role in the film. You can see his performance as Matt Damon’s tutor “Tom”, but the most profound impact he had in the film were these words he wrote for the script: “Most people never get to see how brilliant they can be. They don’t find teachers that believe in them. They get convinced they’re stupid.”
About the Author
Janet LoSole is the author of . She holds a Bachelor of Education degree (French) and is a certified TESOL instructor. Before her career as a parent-educator, Janet taught French at the elementary level and has taught ESL internationally since 1994. World travel is the primary curriculum resource for her two homeschooled daughters. A staunch advocate of community-based tourism, Janet has made numerous presentations on the concept to community groups, encouraging people to eschew corporate package tours in favour of supporting local family-owned businesses. Her writing on homeschooling, worldschooling, and traveling can be found on her . You can connect with her on