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The Myth of Ability, and How Textbooks Drag Education Down

On the bookshelf making me think this week:  The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child, by John Mighton. 

This book explodes the idea that only certain people are "good" at math and the rest of us should just resign ourselves to being lousy at and uncomfortable with it.

The same thing happens with art, by the way.  What kid isn't proud to think of him/herself as an artist?  But as an adult, we think it's tremendous hubris to call yourself an artist.  Somewhere along the line, your “artist” gets killed off.  Same with your “mathematician.”

Mighton says that as teachers (parents!), it’s our job to lead our learners through the process of learning.  Through the procedures involved, step by step.  If we miss a step, if they get lost, it’s our failure, not theirs.

And make no mistake, he says, the system is failing and the gap between “strong students” and “weak students” is growing despite the fact that it’s largely a self-fulfilling prophecy caused by poor texts and nervous teachers. 

“I’ve never seen a text… that consistently introduces mathematical concepts in any order a student could grasp, or that lays out the steps of an explanation in a way that any teacher could communicate.”  We assume that some kids just can’t learn math.  Sorry, guys!

What starts as an insignificant gap in the lower grades is so great by Grade 9 that kids must be “streamed” (conventional thinking dictates) if they are to derive any use of numbers whatsoever in their lives.

Some kids get it, some teachers get it.  But he says, “as far as I am aware, no program in mathematics was ever developed with the expectation that every child in the program would excel.”  Most teachers expect a high number to fail – which is, in his view, unacceptable.

He mentions that most of us (including him) did fine in math up to a certain point, and then, shut down and couldn’t go any further with it.  He says that point often mysteriously coincides with a year we had a BAD MATH TEACHER.

His book then outlines, step by step, his “JUMP” method for teaching math at a variety of age levels.  It’s interesting, and I am considering investing in the formal JUMP workbook program for Naomi – she’s been trying sample pages from the first workbook and enjoying them immensely.  I’ll touch on that in more detail in another post tomorrow.

But the issue of texts is one I’ve been thinking about a LOT, because I’m previewing next year’s “Story of the World” history materials from the library.  I have always been a dummy when it comes to history, but it turns out that history is VERY BADLY TAUGHT, particularly here.

Here, the only mandatory social sciences beyond Grade Eight are Canadian History and Canadian Geography.  You learn about Canada’s terrain. You learn about everything that has ever happened here – natives, explorers, fur trade, Great Depression, world wars – and you’re done.  For LIFE! 

Romulus and Remus?  Constantinople?  The Fertile Crescent?  Michelangelo?  Nope!  Just a few explorers and some interchangeable dry-white-guy prime ministers in suits.

A Swedish friend was appalled at how ignorant we all are here, but frankly, I always felt relieved not to have to learn more of that dry, dull stuff.  But wouldn’t you know:  just like math, it turns out that the only thing DULL about history, as Charlotte Mason well knew, is the textbooks.

Here’s how textbooks are born:

  • First comes curriculum – the Ministry-mandated bare-bones essentials for What Our Kids Need to Know.  Mysteriously, this varies a lot from place to place, even in “universal” subjects.  Move to Alberta and all of a sudden, some of the math you learned here is unnecessary.  Move from BC and you might find yourself lacking core knowledge that you need to get ahead here.
  • Then comes a committee who reads the curriculum and prescribes chapters to exactly match the curriculum. 
  • Then comes another committee to censor the reading selections to ensure that they will not offend or challenge any parent or student – in other words, that they will interest precisely NO students (see Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn for more on this – especially if you don’t believe this watering-down process is real and explicit)
  • Add pretty pictures, publish, and charge a FORTUNE.

I’m not being paranoid here – I see textbooks every day, thanks to my daughter in high school.  Even YM’s online school uses what are basically online textbooks.  They are almost universally TERRIBLE.

I am increasingly convinced that nobody normal ever, EVER learned anything from a textbook.

In The Myth of Ability, Mighton gives examples of mediocrity and incompetence in textbooks, but I have seen many with my own eyes – poorly-defined terms, exercises that make use of principles that haven’t been taught yet, self-referential definitions that make me go blind and cross-eyed all in one.

Here’s the frustrating part:  textbooks can AFFORD to be terrible!  Not only afford it, nobody cares and they make a fortune anyway!  Here’s what happens – a simple syllogism:

  • Textbooks are developed to meet the needs of the curriculum.
  • Schools must teach to the curriculum.
  • Therefore, schools buy the textbooks – at any cost.

Does any teacher ever get all excited about a new textbook?  Sometimes there are snazzy graphics.  But there are rarely any snazzy ideas or language. 

Elisheva’s math textbook, which is STUPID in the extreme and blindingly unhelpful, and which I can only read because I understand the math ALREADY, cost $90 new.  Her science textbook?  ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS.  This is not a specialized text!  This is the same basic “overview of science disciplines” that has been taught the same way since the early 20th century (maybe with a few more elements in the periodic table).

After that amount of time, drugs like aspirin lose their patent and you can get a generic equivalent for super-cheap.  Textbooks?  Never!  Spiffy up the graphics, add references to global warming, and you have a brand-new edition for the 21st century – and a brand-new reason to charge $100.

Now, here’s the GREAT part, the part I love:

  • Outside of schools, nobody must learn history, science, etc.
  • In fact, most people don’t learn history, science, etc.
  • So it stands to reason that relatively few people buy those books
  • Therefore, if a publisher wants to publish a  history book, it had better be a book that people will really want to read – in other words, a well-written book that is appealing on many levels.  (better make it affordable, too:  few of us can afford those snazzy “school” prices!)

So if you want to learn history, whether as an adult or if you’re teaching it to your kids, you do what Charlotte Mason homeschoolers do, and what Classical homeschoolers do:  you choose a “spine” – a well-written “living book” that covers all the ground you want to cover competently.

Then, for each sub-topic, you choose supplementary “living books,” thick or thin, old or new, well-written by experts and people who love their subjects (not just textbook writers-for-hire who can write about anything).  Throw in some relevant fiction reading to add a third dimension and some fun and what you’ve got is the basics of a mercifully textbook-free education.

(You might ask if the SPINE isn’t a textbook!  No, no, say it ain’t so!  In my opinion, every good spine – like Story of the World – realizes it’s merely a jumping-off point for discovery.  Whereas every lousy textbook assumes it’s the only thing you’re ever going to read on the subject and tosses in every map, diagram, photograph and concentrated piece of idiocy the writers know from the curriculum is going to be on the exam.)

It’s the only way to learn, and the only way to get past the myths that drag us all down, that some of us possess mystical gifts in certain “hard” subjects that others of us will never know.  Maybe next I’ll figure out how to become an artist!


  1. I've always said the same thing about musical ability too! Also, I had straight As in math through 9th grade, then BAD MATH TEACHER in 10th and I only lasted another year past that (barely). Tragic. I really liked math, too, before that.

    I love Story of the World. I feel like we're just cozying up with a cup of tea for storytime, then reading all kinds of things sideways, with historical fiction being our "dessert." It's a lovely way to do history. :)

  2. Shalom!
    Yes, yes, yes! I have read several articles about the textbook racket, each one more depressing than the last. I am so glad that I went to a private school that chose textbooks without having to consult a bureaucratic board that was probably in cahoots with the publishers. My school didn't change textbooks frequently, because they were well chosen, but we all knew that a textbook could be immediately dropped without a bureaucratic inquiry if the head of a department realized that the textbook was inappropriate or inadequate.

  3. I don't know how much I agree with the nitty gritty of the book, just the title makes sense. Kids are different, different maturity, abilities etc. Teaching must take all that into account. Workbooks are the worst, because they suit one type of mind generally. Teachers don't create lessons according to the kids' needs.

    I think more gifted kids get messed up than any other, especially when they're gifted in math.

  4. This sounds very interesting. I've been quite frustrated with some modern math texts which tend to be repetative from year to year, while not following any logical progression. So thanks for pointing this out.

  5. I always thought American history was boring until I studied it (with my daughter in homeschool) with living books. Boy, was I wrong. Those textbooks (and teachers) were boring. But the history itself is fascinating! I also appreciate your distinction between a spine and a textbook.

  6. I'm not sure you know what you're talking about... of COURSE as an adult we feel like it's hUGE HUBRIS to think you can be good at something you're already good at. I think that's the whole point of the book being about CHILD DEVELOPMENT. There are no MAGICAL means that children become good at things, they do it by EARLY EXPOSURE to certain concepts.

  7. @sharonduh - huh? Sorry, but although I'm pretty sure I understand what John Mighton is talking about, I totally don't understand what you mean. Please rephrase if possible. I certainly never used the word "magical."


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