In Terrace classrooms there’s a new way to teach math

A new math program is on the rise in Canada, and Terrace schools are looking to find themselves ahead of the curve

Cassie Hall’s Grade 3/4 teacher Nancy Jay helps Grade 3 student Stephan Reece during the Oct. 30 math lesson.

It’s a sunny, snowy Tuesday morning in Nancy Jay’s classroom at Cassie Hall Elementary here in Terrace. Twenty-some kids, flanked by two assistants and their teacher come bursting into the room, fresh from PE in the gymnasium down the hall.

It’s a split class, like nearly 40 per cent of the classrooms in the Coast Mountains School District, and like many classrooms across the province, these Grade 3s and 4s fall all across the learning spectrum.

One way to check out the differences in these students is to observe how they’ve treated their red math duotangs, just coming out for the day’s one-hour lesson. The class has just started taking notes during math, called numeracy in teacher vernacular, so the notebooks are still a bit of a novelty and the kids seem genuinely excited to start the lesson. Many of the covers are splashed with big block letters spelling out “JUMP MATH,” while others have the title dead centre in small, neat print.

It might be easy to assume that the kids with neater notebooks are naturally more inclined to excel in math—a subject that takes diligence, repetition and a rational mind. Maybe the kids who doodle all over their books are better off focussing on the arts or social studies, or something less concrete. But to divide the class into kids who might be good at math and kids who probably won’t be is a mistake—especially in the eyes of Dr. John Mighton, the creator of the math program those red duotangs are used for.

Mighton is a playwright, a mathematician and the creator of the Jump Math curriculum, which is in at least 500 schools across B.C.

In his experience, every child has the potential to excel at math. The program goes so far to advertise this belief in their name—the “Jump” stands for Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies.

Mighton started the not-for-profit program after his experience as a math tutor in Toronto. Before he became a tutor, he never considered himself good at math. But as he went over and over the material and taught it to kids, he says he started to deeply understand the method behind it all. In his understanding and ability to explain the concepts behind the problems, he saw success with the kids he tutored, and realized there might be a better way to teach math. He went back to school and  eventually received his PhD in mathematics from the University of Toronto.

From there, he and his team went about developing a new kind of curriculum, which was introduced in 1998 and has been used across Canada for about a decade. Nearly 86,000 students worldwide use the program, along with more than 2,000 parents and teachers—and it’s gaining traction here in B.C. as more teachers adopt the program, many of them using it at home with their own children first.

In Terrace at Cassie Hall Elementary, every classroom from Grade 1-6 uses the program. Cassie Hall, along with Suwilaawks, Kitwanga, and a couple of other classrooms in the school district, is also involved with a UNBC study on Jump Math and its effectiveness, meaning Cassie Hall has been given a break on the cost of materials, which Cassie Hall principal Sheila Thorhaug says are already reasonable in price in comparison to other programs.

If this program continues to take off, Cassie Hall and the other Terrace schools who use it will be well ahead of the curve.

Results from a handful of other studies of the Jump Math method have been promising, especially some from inner-city schools in Britain, and Thorhaug is optimistic that her school will see similar results.

“I really think we will,” she said, noting that she has spoken with principals who have seen their Foundation Skills Assessments results improve after adopting the program.

The program is rooted in the idea that anyone can do math, and Mighton and his team press that by following the program you can take kids at every notch in the spectrum and raise them all to the top—and all without the students already in the upper percentile getting bored waiting for the others to catch up.

Because in the Jump world, students don’t need to be geniuses to be a genius at math. They just need to take it step by tiny step. And once kids begin to “get” math (traditionally a hard or taboo subject) they’ll take that confidence and transfer it to other subjects. They’ll stop thinking about “surviving” math class, and enjoy the process of learning.

Recently, Mighton told his story while hosting a series of workshops for Terrace and district area teachers and administrators at the R.E.M. Lee Theatre as part of a professional development day.

This is where he met Jay, who has been using the Jump Math curriculum in her classrooms for three years, and explained to her the value of introducing notebooks early.

Mighton and his team recommend students start taking separate notes during math lessons as soon as possible to aid with comprehension (this isn’t standard in most math programs). They still use a standardized workbook, sometimes referred to as a “practice book”, but that comes at the end of the lesson. The math problems in the workbook are a way for the teacher to assess students’ progress and make sure they’ve understood the lesson—a near-daily mini quiz, if you will. And even though it’s only been a few days with the notebooks, Jay says she can notice a difference already.

“They’re more engaged,” she says. “And they’re proud of their work.”

Teachers are more engaged with the program too, she says, as the curriculum places a ton of emphasis on engaged teaching practices and veers away from just memorizing and repetition.

“When I schedule math, I know I’m going to be ‘on’ for the whole hour,” she says. “Before, it would be repetition practice. The intro would have been very short, teach a concept, turn to page 45 and do questions one through nine.”

But this program has Jay asking and fielding questions, explaining concepts, drawing charts and tables on the board for the majority of the one hour lesson. It’s a process called “guided discovery”, and a lesson is described by Jump like this: “the teacher asks a series of Socratic questions and gives students incrementally harder challenges and activities, with immediate assessment and feedback.”

The program’s teaching guide is designed to be followed like a script, and the program’s facilitators insist that the teaching process is just as, if not more, important than the workbooks and assessments. They charge that teachers can literally read the script word for word and see results.

“Children are constantly engaged and participating,” says Liz Barrett, Jump Math’s B.C. coordinator. She trains teachers to use the program in their classrooms, and helps link administrators with teaching materials, many of them readily available online.

“Young children want to be part of a group,” she says. “There’s an energy that comes from shining in front of your peers.”

She presses that this classroom engagement empowers the children, which in turn empowers the teacher.

“The teaching of math becomes a priority,” she says.

But the program is not without its challenges, perhaps the main one being the change in general.

“Anytime you start a new program, it’s a lot of work,” says Jay, noting she’s been teaching math for 20 years and has been through a few different curriculums. But she especially likes the way this program works in split classrooms.

“It gets easier,” she says. “And as educators we have to be open to trying new programs.”

Cassie Hall principal Thorhaug also concedes that change can be difficult, but she says that once teachers understand how to use the program and follow the guidelines, especially the teaching guides, they get on board.

“I think something that Liz (Barrett) and John (Mighton) have really tried to do is emphasize how important it is to use the teacher guide and do the teaching that’s been recommended instead of just assigning pages,” she said.

“That’s kind of a new concept for people. The program’s set up totally different and the teaching is the key component,” she says.

In the classroom, the one-hour lesson flies by in a flurry of raised hands, precocious questions, and Jay’s voice saying more than once, “Great. Now let’s try something harder.”

It ends with 15 minutes of quiet workbook time, where Jay and her assistants circle the room, crouching down to help students with questions.

Next, Jay asks the children to return their desks back to their proper positions (she’s started getting them to separate their desks at the beginning of math class, on the advice of Mighton).

“And why do we move our desks apart?” she asks the class.

“So that we don’t bug other people and so that we pay attention to our teacher and not the people beside us,” comes the answer from a boy at the back of the room.

“Right,” says Jay. “And what did we study today in numeracy? What did we learn?”

And hands go up around the room.