One of my heroes is a Canadian playwright, mathematician and educator named John Mighton. While trying to make ends meet as a playwright, Mighton worked at a tutoring agency and found out that despite (or, more likely, because of) his prior struggles with math, he was good at tutoring the subject.
A little later, he started tutoring kids from a local elementary school and worked with some who were very far behind, including a sixth-grader who couldn’t count by twos. Teaching such students, Mighton hit on a method that focused on building confidence and breaking mathematical procedures down into tiny steps, sometimes starting with drawing a fraction bar in the right place.
As students progressed, it wasn’t necessary to make the steps so tiny anymore. Kids started figuring out more on their own and surpassing their traditionally-taught peers. By breaking initial learning into tiny steps and then gradually making the steps larger, Mighton’s program, called JUMP Math, both allows students to progress much faster than standard teaching methods and closes the gap between faster and slower learners.
I went through a similar experience with physical training and both it and my own struggles with math have informed my teaching. As a college freshman, I started going to the gym after more than two years of inactivity — and “inactivity” means something very different to a powerchair user than to someone who walks to get around. The rowing machines caught my eye because I could transfer to and from them without asking for help. Rowing it would be, then. I decided to start with five minutes and rowed three times that week, for five minutes each time.
The following week, I upped my game — to six minutes. The difference between five and six is barely detectable. If I could do five minutes, I could do six. And I did. The next week, I did seven minutes. Then eight. On reaching ten minutes, I was ready to increase my rowing time faster — by two minutes a week instead of one. By the end of ten weeks, just one academic quarter, I had worked my way up from almost nothing to a respectable twenty-minute workout. And I had done it all in barely detectable steps.
I went through the same process five years later, when I started weight training. Starting at whatever weight felt moderately challenging, I trained until that weight started to feel pretty easy and then went up five or ten pounds. Moving to a heavier weight made for a visible and objective measure of progress, which was a great motivator. A few months into this process, I noticed that when I got on many machines, I was moving the weight up instead of down. It felt amazing to realize that I could handle more weight than many people without disabilities. “I may be in a wheelchair, but I can leg press more than you,” may not be the most enlightened thought, but it sure is fun!
These days, when I describe training BJJ or doing a 50-mile cycling trip, many people say they could never do that, as if I’m some kind of natural athlete. But 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t have done it either. It took many small steps and a lot of support (described in an earlier post) to get to where I am. For a beginner, “start where you are, move up in barely detectable steps, and keep track of your progress” are practical and empowering principles. They open the door to fitness and much else.
Jane S. is an ecologist currently doing curriculum development in mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also put way too much time into choosing the color of her most recent powerchair.