During a special week in October of 2017 a global phenomenon in mathematics education and outreach occurred: thousands of math teachers, club organizers, and math outreach leaders from over 150 different countries and territories opened their classroom doors and engaged in a common, joyous piece of school-relevant mathematics with over 1.7 million students. In Saudi Arabia, pony-tailed girls played with colored magnetic discs stuck to a metal wall. In New York, high-school students drew illustrations on white boards and students in Tanzania did the same on chalk boards. In Zimbabwe, students made hollows in the ground and excitedly pushed pebbles back and forth between the holes. And in Serbia, middle-school students played with dots in boxes on their laptops though an online app.
And the global phenomenon occurred again in October of 2018, this time reaching well over 5 million students with the same powerful piece of uplifting mathematics. Both years all was volunteer, all was grassroots, and all was propelled by our beautiful community of teachers across the globe simply wanting to share joyous, meaningful, connected, and genuine mathematics with their wonderful students.
What kind of classroom-relevant mathematics has the power to enthrall students across the planet, transcending language, borders, and technology? And what flames were lit to first propel this mathematics across the globe?
The Global Math Project
It all started back in 2015 when Jill Diniz, Director of Mathematics Curriculum at Great Minds, said to me on a call: “Hey, James! Have you heard of Code.org? We should do for math what The Hour of Code has done for computer coding.”
Founded in 2013, the Hour of Code set out to prove to students across the globe that coding is accessible, exciting, and relevant for all. They declared an annual special week for coding and invited students to simply spend one hour some time during that week trying a coding activity from their website — be it an exercise with paper and counters to learn about binary arithmetic or a full-on programming experience. The fact that this was a semi-synchronous experience was a brilliant idea: students felt, no matter at what level of sophistication they were working, that they were part of a global community of learners. Students happily devoted an hour of extra-curricular time trying coding and the popularity of the enterprise grew in exponential leaps and bounds. The Hour of Code has currently served well over 600 million students.
Could we set about creating the analogous experience for mathematics?
There was one serious problem with the idea. Coding is perceived by the general populous as a priori exciting and interesting, and when opportunities are offered as points of entry to it, folk, young and old, will happily give up an hour of their own free time to give it a try. Would people willingly also give up an hour of their free time for extra-curricular math? Unlikely!
The sad truth is that, by and large, mathematics is feared and perhaps even openly disliked in the popular culture of the majority of countries across the globe. At the very least, math is often perceived as “hard” and “sterile,” perhaps even remote, and unforgiving. People don’t naturally associate words such as “joyful,” “human,” “creative,” and “organic” with the subject, and certainly would not, for the most part, think it fun to voluntarily sign up for an hour of math.
So did that mean we thought the idea was doomed? Actually not. We realized we had an advantage over computer science: students are already engaging in mathematics many days of each and every year. And, moreover, we had a whole community of adults already working with these students on this very subject: their math teachers!
Teachers are the world’s best and most fabulous advocates of mathematics for our next generation, so we decided we focus on bringing a global math experience to the teachers of the world, who would then conduct a similar experience with their students. Approached in this way, a successful global week dedicated to mathematics seemed feasible.
So I then set about to find a team of people to join Jill and me in hashing out a plan to create a Global Math Week for the world. We became a team of seven with Brianna Donaldson, Director of Special Projects at the American Institute of Mathematics; Cindy Lawrence, Executive Director of the National Museum of Mathematics; Derarca Lynch, of New York University of Abu Dhabi; Raj Shah, Founder of Math Plus Academy; and Travis Sperry, now a Software Developer for CoverMyMeds. We met for a week-long planning and brainstorming session, dubbed ourselves the Global Math Project team, and set about organizing a Global Math Week. We are grateful to the American Institute of Mathematics for adopting us as a Special Project of the Institute, thus providing us with meeting space and some administrative support.
The ultimate goal of the Global Math Project is bold and audacious: To shift the entire world’s perception of what mathematics can, and should, be. And as the world’s primary encounter with mathematics is school mathematics, that means demonstrating, in a genuine and direct way, that classroom mathematics can and does, in and of itself, serve as a portal to a genuine, meaningful, and connected human experience. We want to prove that curriculum-relevant mathematics is uplifting for the mind and for the heart.
At the same time we must be universal and not speak to any particular curriculum. Our work must be simultaneously curriculum-relevant and curriculum-agnostic!
And on a practical front, to achieve global impact and scale with modest means, this project must be conducted primarily through grassroots volunteer efforts, building on the enthusiasm and passion of ground-level folk.
We identified our core values and core practices.
- Mathematics is for everyone!
- Teachers are the greatest advocates for mathematics
- Everyone is part of the global mathematics community
- Ensure inclusivity and free acmes for all
- Remain curriculum relevant but curriculum agnostic
- Let mathematics shine for itself
Beginning with these lofty goals and next-to-no resources, we wondered how we could possibly pull this off?
Well, we did have one golden nugget in hand: a proven exemplar of a piece of joyous, “mind-blowing” school-mathematics: the story of Exploding Dots.
My career path is a little unusual. I received a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University in the mid-90s and have always had a strong passion for teaching and generally sharing the profound beauty of mathematics I see and enjoy thinking about. I embarked in a career in a Liberal Arts College environment where I was encouraged to devote good attention to teaching and public outreach as a solid part of my work.
That work soon led me to conducting Professional Development sessions for K-12 teachers, and here I had a rude awakening. My discussions on the beautiful mathematics I thought about and played with each day were too far removed from the standard material being discussed and explored in classrooms. Sure, we could have a fine time playing with curious tangles and developing some lovely mathematics to characterize them, or conducting interesting mathematical discussions about laundry, to figure out why the shape of clothing is the same inside-out as it is outside-in, and so on, but at the end of the day, the reality is that teachers and their students will be attending to quadratics, trigonometry, polynomials, and the like, and not any of this “cool stuff.”
Well, surely school mathematics is “cool” too!
So I started thinking about school mathematics. I focused on middle school and high school mathematics, where I sensed the joie des mathématiqueswas particularly lacking. How could I teach the division of polynomials as a meaningful uplifting story of interest to humans in a way that brings joy to the heart?
As I mulled on this over the years, I came to realize that polynomials, being a “base x” arithmetic, really belong in the story of place-value: how we write and work with numbers in the early grades, how we conduct the standard arithmetic algorithms in grade school, how we repeat all that work in high-school with polynomials as we free ourselves from our human predilection for working with the powers of ten, and how a few more nudges take us to infinite series and generating functions, to the weird arithmetic systems of the ten-adics, and more. And I realized all this could be demonstrated almost wordlessly, simply through playing with dots placed in a row of boxes, as though this was just a small example of a “chip firing,” a system of current research. (It really is also the same as an Asian abacus, with beads on rods.) But it wasn’t until I invited Dr. Jim Propp to give a talk at a Math Circle for students I was directing at the time that I realized that this story was more than just “cute.” Jim talked about a 2←3 chip-firing system that naturally led to discussion of systems akin to base-one-and-a-half and a plethora of unsolved research problems lurking there! It hit me that this simple and elegant visual story of dots in boxes that can be used to explain place-value swiftly, and so naturally, goes from grade K to grade 8 to grade 12 to grade 16 and then beyond to research mathematics in one astounding fell swoop.
Exploding Dots was now a story of substance!
My interest in examining standard school curriculum topics — figuring out how to “declutter” them and allow the natural joyous mathematics to shine — led me to become a high-school teacher for nine-and-a-half years. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to understand the pressures and demands on teachers in K-12 culture. I wanted to contend with the manifest political concerns of administrators trying to establish uniform teaching practices throughout departments and across schools, of teacher evaluation, of parental scrutiny, of high-stakes exams and student grade pressures, and the like, issues I as a college professor never had to face. (Each of my college courses was solely my domain, to be run in whatever manner I personally saw fit.)
Teaching high-school was the hardest and most demanding job I ever had!
But I loved the challenge of taking a seemingly dry topic and figuring out the human story behind it, one that teaches a deep-thinking and problem-solving mindset, that speaks to a sense of joyous wonder and delight, and still attends to passing those high-stakes exams that were set out of my control. Quadratics I realized, for instance is really a story of symmetry and coupling common-sense thinking with the power of that symmetry. The area model applies not only to basic arithmetic multiplication and division, but also to polynomial multiplication and division, and to models of probability theory and infinite series. And so on. But the exemplar story was, for sure, Exploding Dots.
This story soon become my most requested lecture and workshop topic as I transformed my career into more and more public outreach and professional development work. I have since moved on from being in the classroom, and Exploding Dots still remains my most requested workshop topic. I’ve given sessions for parents, themselves uneasy with mathematics, who, after an hour, are asking me to give them harder and harder polynomial division problems to do! I’ve given sessions to college professors who, like most every audience I work with, utter the phrase “mind blown.” I was once in a very tough, political and overtly confrontational public session, pre-accused of being a proponent of “discovery learning” (apparently a bad thing) when we should be going “back to the basics” in math teaching. After my Exploding Dots lecture I received only one question from the audience. It was, “Why aren’t we teaching this in schools?”
Jill had seen Exploding Dots too. It is powerful. It is mind-blowing. And she was insisting it be brought to the world. So the Global Math Project team set to unleash Exploding Dots.
Getting the Inaugural Global Math Week off the ground
To get started, we set about writing up and making freely available all the necessary materials for teachers and math leaders to experience Exploding Dots, learn how to conduct lessons in the topic, and have all the supporting materials they might need to conduct sessions with their students. I already had videos and written notes outlining the entire experience on my personal website (which is still available at www.gdaymath.com/courses/exploding-dots/), and we based our work off of all that was there.
We created our own website, www.globalmathproject.org, to make sure we had an official online presence and then set about choosing a date for Global Math Week.
And this wasn’t an arbitrary task!
We wanted to choose a week in the year that isn’t too close to school opening nor too close to school ending (we know these are particularly demanding times for teachers), but we also wanted to avoid months with major holiday celebrations. We also needed to make sure we avoided northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere summer months when schools are not in session. By a process of elimination, it became apparent that October was the only suitable month for a Global Math Week. As we also didn’t want to be biased about what constitutes the start day of a school week (Monday in some countries, Sunday in others, for instance) we decided to declare a particular date in October to be the start of Global Math Week, no matter on which day of the week it happens to land from year-to-year. And to avoid additional international confusion we decided that the start of Global Math Week had to be 10/10 of each year: whether you read this as “the 10th of October” or as “October 10th,” you are correct! (The only place we failed on international consistency is with the word “math” versus “maths.”)
With the date settled as 10.10.2017 for the start of the world’s inaugural Global Math Week, the real challenge was figuring out how to let the world know about it!
At this point, we decided to create a Global Math Ambassadors program. We would recognize on our website volunteers from around world who would pledge to help spread the word about the project, train local teachers to play with, understand, and teach Exploding Dots, and do their best to contact local media services with the story of what was afoot. Our team of seven simply did our best to reach out to people we knew via email and on social media and tell them of our new program. The response was staggering: for that first year over 360 people from over 60 countries stepped up to be ambassadors.
And then a significant and generous gift fell into our laps. The Montreal-based mathematics education software company Scolab (www.scolab.com) caught wind of what we were doing and wanted to talk. I visited the company and gave a lecture on Exploding Dots, and they were smitten. They decided to donate their services to make an entire self-contained Exploding Dots web experience for those classrooms in the world with access to full technology. Incredible! (You can see their brilliant web app at www.explodingdots.org.)
We had written teaching guides for teachers who have absolutely no technology available in their classrooms, for teachers who have minimal technology available (simply the ability to show my videos, for instance), and now we could offer teachers a full technology experience too if they had that option.
Other partner organizations started coming on board too, including Matific, Geogebra, Wolfram and One on Epsilon to create additional ways for folk to explore our content using their materials and platforms. (See too our current partner’s page and the products they have graciously produced to help bring the Global Math experience to the world.) Also some of our ambassadors worked to translate our teaching guides into multiple languages.
At this point all was set in place for our inaugural Global Math Week. We set the audacious goal of reaching 1 million students that week.
I will confess now that I personally did not think we would achieve our audacious goal that first year. After all, this was an essentially grassroots, all volunteer effort, operating with next-to-no funding to support it. (We had about $2000 in our operating budget at the time.) I do believe in people, but 1 million is a mighty bold number when one is starting at zero!
The days passed quickly and the start of Global Math Week was approaching.
We had a real-time registration tracking system in place and I recall obsessively checking counts. For the first few weeks, only a trickle of registrations came in. This turned into a steady flow for the week leading up to Global Math Week, which then turned to a deluge the morning of the first day of the Week! I was sitting at my laptop and recall seeing the counter turn to the number 1 million at 11:26 am, U.S. Pacific time. I was alone at the time and I did shed some tears of joy. I couldn’t contain them! (I am very human.) I simply could not believe that mathematics — the pure joy of mathematics — had taken hold and become a global phenomenon. We encouraged folk to share photographs and stories on social media, and it was so readily apparent that this truly was a community affair. Mathematics had transcended borders and united communities!
By the end of the week thousands of teachers had opened up their classrooms to Exploding Dots and over 1.77 million students had now had a first introduction to the topic. (All our materials will remain freely available, in perpetuity, for the world to see and enjoy. Students and teacher were simply engaging with a first experience with the topic during this special week.)
On a follow-up survey, more than 90% of teachers who responded agreed that the Global Math Week topic of Exploding Dots helped students to see mathematics as more approachable, more enjoyable and as making sense. Teachers saw students be more confident in mathematics. Commented one teacher
It was an incredible experience for ALL students! Those who don’t typically see themselves as ‘math people’ engaged deeply with the problem and often explained how Exploding Dots worked to their ‘more math-y’ classmates. It was a great equalizer!
In addition, three-quarters of teachers who responded to the survey said that Exploding Dots had changed their own perception of mathematics as well. One teacher wrote
It made evident that even what we might call ‘basic math’ or ‘elementary math’ is a joyous activity. We don’t have to wait until we reach the upper level math courses in a graduate program to finally find the joy.
Many teachers also remarked on the excitement that global participation brought to the project, for example writing
My students were so excited to be a part of the Global Math Project knowing students all around the world were learning and doing the same math.
With the success of our inaugural Week, we felt we had proven that, when given the invitation, teachers across the globe will indeed open their classroom doors to joyous and genuine mathematics. And the countless volunteer hours devoted by people all over the world to making Global Math Week 2017 a success is a testament to the power and beauty of mathematics and its ability to inspire and connect us all.
This article is an excerpt from Global Joy: Uplifting Mathematics in Classrooms Across the Planet, which was originally published by James Tanton on Medium on October 31, 2018.