For Global Math Week, an ‘Exploding Dots’ Activity Seeks to Make Math Fun

By Madeline Will — October 11, 2017 3 min read
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Over a million students, teachers, and general math lovers from more than 100 countries have signed up to participate in Global Math Week and a math activity dubbed Exploding Dots.

The inaugural weeklong initiative, which started Oct. 10 and ends Oct. 17, is helmed by James Tanton, a former high school teacher who is now a mathematician-at-large for the Mathematical Association of America.

Tanton came to the United States in the 1990s to get his PhD in mathematics. He was frustrated to see that mathematics education still involved the “joyless rote memorization I went through as a kid back in Australia.”

He decided to become a teacher to counteract that, and taught high school math for 10 years. Now, he considers it his mission to spread the joy of math.

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Mostly, that has been through Exploding Dots, which is a “mathematical journey” that takes students through progressively more complicated activities that incorporate “grade school arithmetic, high-school polynomials algebra, infinite sums, and advanced mathematics and unsolved research problems baffling mathematicians still to this day.” More than 1.15 million participants have agreed to try the activity this week.

Exploding Dots is essentially a modern-day abacus, but instead of using beads and rods, Tanton’s version uses dots and boxes. Instead of sliding beads, the dots explode.

Tanton developed it 15 years ago, taught it in his own classroom, and then began using it in professional development workshops for teachers in the United States and abroad. It became his most requested topic, he said.

“It really is this magical thing,” he said, adding that it makes math accessible, joyful, and relevant for students.

Exploding Dots works best for students ages 10 and up, Tanton said, but the material can be adapted for younger students. He is asking for teachers to take 15 minutes to tell their students about Exploding Dots during this week—even if they’re still unsure how Exploding Dots works.

“Just do it, dive in,” he said. “Make it a conversation with your kids. Oftentimes, teachers feel the need to be the expert at all times.”

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The concept is empowering for students, Tanton said, because they can truly “own the algorithm.” While most math problems go left to right, Exploding Dots lets students work right to left as well.

“There are many good routes to mathematics, and it’s really a matter of style,” he said.

There’s a huge amount of free material on the website, so Tanton hopes that teachers will continue to use Exploding Dots past this week. There is an interactive version online, but teachers with limited access to technology can also use this with their students on pen and paper, he said.

On Twitter, teachers have been sharing pictures of their students playing with Exploding Dots.

“This is a community of teachers across the globe who want to bring joyous mathematics to their students,” Tanton said.

Image of James Tanton showing Exploding Dots, via video screengrab

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.