James Tanton is a Mathematician-at-Large for the Mathematical Association of America and Founder of the Global Math Project. He is a creator of videos on mathematics on YouTube which has earned him a large following with approximately 270, 000 views.
I grew up in an old Victorian house in Adelaide, Australia, and my earliest experiences of maths—though I didn’t recognise that at the time—came from staring at my childhood bedroom ceiling before falling asleep each night. I was staring at a large geometric design of 25 squares in an 5×5 array imprinted on a tin-pressed ceiling. I counted squares (there are 55 of them!). I counted rectangles. I created a myriad of mathematical games and puzzles for myself, some I couldn’t answer, all based on that simple grid.
But I actually went through school disliking maths. I found it quite dull and irrelevant, even though I was labelled gifted in the subject. The issue, as it turned out, was that I was more concerned with the ‘why’ of algorithms and procedures—what makes them work—while the classroom practice wanted me to just “do” the algorithms and focus on getting answers, usually with speed.
It wasn’t until I went to university to study Theoretical Physics and took a subject called Abstract Algebra that I finally saw what mathematics is really about. It is about identifying possible structure, pinpoints the key features that make it all work, and about explaining the why of it all. I was exploring all the ‘why’ questions I had longed to attend to as school student. I switched degrees and went into pure mathematics and even went all the way through to complete Ph.D. in mathematics at one of the top research institutions in the world, Princeton in the USA.
I became a University Professor. But I always felt a strong moral pull to towards teaching and outreach, basically, to share with one and all the joy, meaning, relevance, and uplifting human delight mathematics genuinely offers. My university career had a strong focus on such work, but I wanted to make deep impact. After much thinking, I decided to leave the university world and become a high-school teacher, which I did, for close to ten years. I also was very public, with essays and YouTube videos, and started developing a national reputation for my take on making curriculum mathematics joyous.
My wife and I moved to Washington DC and the Mathematical Association of America brought me on board as their Mathematician-in-Residence, charging me to continue doing mathematics outreach work for all levels of education. We have since moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and now serve as their Mathematician-at-Large (the coolest title ever!). My reputation seems to have only grown and now I visit schools and universities all around the world to talk with educators and students setting the joy of mathematics free (and have students still pass all those mandated exams, nonetheless).
I firmly believe that mathematics is a stunning vehicle for promoting and fostering self-agency and the confidence to just persist and persevere. Even if you don’t solve the problem at hand, you’ll discover something new, interesting, and useful. Sure, who needs to divide polynomials in everyday life? But that need not be the point. Seeing how to cut through the clutter of polynomial work, learning to tease apart a structure and figure out what is really going on, and developing the comfort of not knowing where you are really going with an idea, is powerful! These are skills for life! Doing mathematics—meaningful mathematical thinking, that is—emboldens and empowers. It helps you become a relevant, competent, and present citizen of the world.