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Top-performing students? That is what every child can be

Every society is plagued by invisible problems that are particularly hard to solve, for no other reason than because they are invisible.

The ancient Greeks were remarkable innovators. They established the first democracies and produced a staggering number of mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. But this great and progressive society was hobbled by an insidious problem they could not see. Even the most enlightened thinkers of 400 BC were certain that women were inferior to men. They also believed that slavery was as good for slaves as it was for their owners. Aristotle wrote, rather chillingly, that some people are born to be masters, while others are only fit to be "living tools."

The Greeks couldn't conceive of a more equitable society. In the end, that social inequality led to such a level of economic inequality that their elaborate society became structurally weakened and fell in on itself.

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In our time, we're confronted by an array of existential threats: global instability, religious extremism, environmental calamity, political corruption, economic fragility. But what most of us haven't yet realized – what seems invisible – is that these problems are borne out of a more fundamental social challenge. The harder we work to solve our most pressing problems, the more they seem to multiply, in part because we are blind to the root cause.

That root is this: we underestimate ourselves. While we educate a small portion of our population extremely well, we unknowingly leave the rest behind. We don't even come close to tapping into the intellectual potential of the vast majority of our citizens – and we don't even see this.

New research in cognitive science suggests that virtually every child should be able to excel at any subject (see for instance, The Expert Mind in Scientific American).

If children were taught according to their true potential from kindergarten, the evidence suggests that by Grade 6, 99 per cent of children could do as well as the top 1 per cent of students do now in any given subject. The means to teach children according to their true potential are already available, and could cost less than the educational programs we now use.

When we compare our present outcomes in education with those that science suggests are possible, we must admit that we live in an age of intellectual poverty. The losses that come from failing to address this problem are staggering.

In 1794, Blake wrote the poem London to protest the horrors of poverty and oppression in seventeenth century England. The poem contains the stanza:

"In every cry of every Man / In every Infant's cry of fear / In every voice, in every ban / The mind forg'd manacles I hear."

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In 2004, I had an opportunity to visit a school in inner-city London. While I was watching the children play at recess, I saw one fight after another break out across the playground. The children who weren't fighting formed rings around the ones who were to urge them on. Several children had to be carried off of the playground because of their injuries.

I had been invited to teach math to a behavioural class at the school. I told the class of 11-year-olds, who had been identified as difficult students, that when I was their age I thought I was dumb and wasn't very good at math. I said that if they didn't understand something, they could stop me and ask me to explain it again. Then I taught them to read binary codes, the strings of zeroes and ones that represent numbers for computers. The students seemed to think they were little code breakers and demanded longer and longer codes. When I performed a mind reading trick they figured out the connection between the trick and the codes and wanted to come to the front of the class to do the trick. On my third day with the class, when the teacher and I entered the room, the children cheered.

Our society has come a long way since London was published. But even now, two centuries later, we have failed to break open the "mind forged manacles" that caused so much misery in Blake's time. We will never fully solve the problems that the poet identified until we recognize that there is such a thing as intellectual poverty and we do everything in our power to eradicate it.

The violent behaviour I witnessed among children in inner-city London is only one face of intellectual poverty. Our society incurs many other losses (economic, environmental sociological and spiritual) because we fail to educate our children according to their potential.

John Mighton is an author, playwright and the founder of JUMP Math. He is writing a book on how children can achieve their full potential.

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