Dr. James Tanton earned his PhD in mathematics from Princeton University. He is an author, a consultant, and ambassador for the Mathematical Association of America in Washington D.C., chair of the Advisory Council for the National Museum of Mathematics, and a founder of the Global Math Project, an initiative to transform the entire world’s perception of what mathematics can, and should, be. This program has now reached over 6 million students and teachers across the planet. James has taught mathematics both at university and high-school institutions. He advises on curriculum, consults with teachers, and gives demonstration classes, lectures, and professional development sessions across the globe. James is also a recipient of a Joint Policy Board for Mathematics communication award for 2020. In a conversation with K12 Digest, Dr. Tanton talks about his research projects and importance of problem-solving and critical thinking, and much more.
Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in mathematics education?
Growing up in Adelaide, Australia, I lived in an old Victorian house with a tin-pressed ceiling featuring a 5×5 array of 25 squares. I would spend hours staring at the ceiling counting the squares and rectangles, and eventually conjuring a myriad of mathematical games and puzzles to keep myself entertained! And although I did not realize it at the time, my early fascination with this simple grid laid the foundation for my future love of mathematics.
In school, although I was considered gifted in mathematics, I struggled to connect with the subject due to the tedious and boring approach to teaching that dominated the curriculum. I longed to understand the “why” behind algorithms and procedures but was only taught to “do” them and focus on getting the answers quickly. It wasn’t until I took a course in Abstract Algebra at university, where I was studying Theoretical Physics, that I finally grasped the essence of mathematics. I learned that maths is really about discovering underlying structures, identifying key features, and explaining why they work. This sparked my switch to pure mathematics and eventually led me to earn a PhD in the discipline from Princeton University.
After obtaining my PhD, I became a university professor with a strong focus on teaching and outreach. However, I felt a calling to make a greater impact and became a high school teacher for nearly a decade. My approach to making maths joyful earned me national recognition, and I was eventually recruited as Mathematician-at-Large by the Mathematical Association of America.
I now travel the world with the hope to inspire students and educators to embrace the joy of mathematics, viewing it as a tool for empowering and fostering self-agency. I believe that meaningful mathematical thinking helps individuals become confident, competent, and active citizens in the world.
What are your current research projects and how they relate to mathematics education?
I have switched gears somewhat, from my formal teaching days at university and high school, and I am now on a mission to make maths joyful again, in any way I can. I would not say it is a strict research project, but I frequently give talks, host workshops, and write books and articles. You could say I am on a global mission to help students and young people all over the world discover the joy of learning mathematics. No fancy labels or research project titles are needed on this, just a passion for making maths a fun and empowering experience for all!
How do you think technology can be effectively used in the classroom to enhance learning?
As a mathematics teacher, I believe in embracing technology in the classroom instead of denying it. I have no issue with students using technology to get answers, be it calculators, textbook back pages, or even Siri. My focus is on helping them understand how they got to those answers, and breaking down formulas and algorithms. I truly believe that, as 21st-century educators, we must leverage the power of technology, especially in mathematics. Instead of restricting students from using technology, we should encourage them and guide them in critically analysing and questioning what they know. Mathematics has the power to sharpen thinking skills and by using technology, we can help students apply these skills to all aspects of their lives. We should not deny technology but, rather, harness it to empower our students.
Can you speak to the importance of problem-solving and critical thinking in mathematics education?
In essence, mathematics is all about problem-solving and critical thinking, and it can act as the perfect vehicle to teach students important life skills. This is because maths is beautiful at giving students a problem and helping them to engage in the first two fundamental steps of problem-solving. Step one in overcoming any problem is to acknowledge your emotional reaction to it. It is normal to feel nervous, intrigued, doubtful, or even scared, when faced with a problem. It is important to accept and acknowledge these emotions.
Step two is to take a deep breath and do something. This can be anything that moves you past your initial emotional reaction and helps you to tackle the problem. This could be drawing a picture of the problem, translating it into symbols, or taking any other action that may help.
By practising these two fundamental steps, you can develop the habit of overcoming problems and moving past emotional reactions. This skill is not only useful in maths, but also in life. Whether it is becoming a parent for the first time or facing any other challenge, acknowledging your emotions and taking action can help you to overcome obstacles. If we can teach the world to take these two steps, we can create a powerful generation for the future.
Can you discuss your approach to promoting diversity and inclusivity in maths education?
Here I want to reiterate what I have been saying all along: we have to radically change the way we approach the teaching of mathematics in schools across the globe. The subject continues to be taught as a series of dry formulas and equations, without acknowledging the rich human history and culture behind its development. For instance, did you know that different parts of the world count differently? In the UK and many parts of Europe, counting begins with the thumb and ends with the pinky. In Iran, counting starts with the pinky finger. In Japan, counting begins with fingers extended in an open palm, which is then drawn in to form a closed fist. In India, counting is done by using the lines between the segments of fingers, with each digit representing four numbers and the entire hand representing 20. And in some Bantu languages spoken in Tanzania, both hands are used symmetrically in counting, with the index, middle, and ring finger of both hands representing the number six.
Each of these methods of counting speaks to the diversity and richness of the history of mathematics. By highlighting these diverse backgrounds and cultures, we can show students that maths is not just a subject for a select few, but a field that is accessible to everyone.
How do you see the field of mathematics education evolving in the next 5 to 10 years?
While the pandemic did lead millions of students across the world to embrace online learning, I think we have really lost out on the human connection in education. So, I think that the next coming years will be spent in rebuilding these connections. It is also important to note that the education system is, in general, resistant to change, so it would be hard to envision any radical deviation in the way teaching and learning is conducted in the next five to ten years.
However, what I am sure of is that the current method of measuring success through exams and grades is inadequate and does not accurately reflect the comprehensive understanding of the subject, especially when it comes to maths. Therefore, in the coming years, it will be crucial to find a more meaningful way to define success in mathematics education and foster a more inclusive and engaging learning environment.
Can you discuss any initiatives or programs you have been a part of that aim to improve maths education for underrepresented groups?
I have been a part of initiatives aimed at improving maths education for underrepresented groups through delivering lectures and talks, hosting workshops, and writing books that emphasise the human aspects of mathematics. My goal is to bring the subject to a wider audience and show that it is a fundamentally human endeavour with a rich history and context. By teaching maths through the lens of its human story, I aim to make it more accessible and engaging for all learners.
As part of my larger goal to make maths interesting for all, I have recently also been part of Infinity 2023 – The Ultimate Math Championship, an international initiative for students, organised by Aditya Birla World Academy (ABWA) in association with BITS Pilani and the University of Waterloo (Faculty of Mathematics). The championship encouraged students to demonstrate their mathematical abilities and their creativity. The event’s finals included competitions such as Pass the Baton, in which each team member contributed to a portion of the solution while the third member provided the final answer, and Bulb Your Ideas, in which the teams presented their solutions to the jury in the form of a dance, song, skit, or in another creative and engaging manner.
How do you think teachers can best support students who struggle with maths?
There are always the traditional methods to help students struggling with any subject that involve devoting individualised attention, being encouraging, pairing the students with a buddy in class to help them etc. However, one of the best ways to support students who grapple with mathematics is to open up their minds and show them that it isn’t the drab subject that it is portrayed to be. Mathematics is a fundamentally human endeavour — created by humans, for humans, and is replete with humanness. All the practices and quirky jargon of mathematics have a human context and a human story. And we humans enjoy stories. We are each intrigued and puzzled by different aspects of a story. So let us teach mathematics with the honest context of the human story in mind too.
Can you speak to the role of creativity in maths education and how you think it can be fostered in students?
To cultivate creativity in mathematics education, I firmly believe in nurturing an atmosphere that invites students to embrace discovery, experimentation, and interconnecting mathematical ideas. I suggest educators cultivate this kind of atmosphere by creating opportunities for students to experiment with open-ended questions, collaborate with their peers, and actively engage in hands-on exercises that bring mathematical concepts to life. By linking mathematics to real-world scenarios and sharing stories that demonstrate the connection between humans and mathematics, students will gain a deeper appreciation for the subject. Moreover, it is crucial for teachers to cultivate a positive and supportive learning environment that embraces mistakes and encourages students to try new problem-solving methods. By doing these experiments students will gain the confidence to take risks and pursue their own creative ideas, leading to a more profound understanding of mathematical concepts.
Can you discuss any notable accomplishments or contributions you’ve made to the field of maths?
I have had the privilege of writing several maths-related books including “Solve This: Math Activities for Students and Clubs” (MAA, 2001), “The Encyclopedia of Mathematics” (Facts on File, 2005), and “Mathematics Galore!” (MAA, 2012), and working on self-publishing additional texts as well. My work has received recognition through various awards and honours, including the Beckenbach Book Prize, the Kidder Faculty Prize, and the Math Hero Award. I am also grateful for the recognition I have received for my teaching and writing, including the Trevor Evans Award, the Princeton University Engineering Council Teaching Award, and the Homer L. Dodge Award. I have also had the opportunity to publish research and expository articles and have helped high school students in pursuing their research projects and seeing their results published through extracurricular research classes. I consider myself fortunate for being able to make a contribution to the field of mathematics.