Conversations: Wilson Tsang with James Tanton
At Cashtivity, we’re thrilled to collaborate with Dr. James Tanton. One of our master authors, he’s a dynamic, well-regarded math educator and writer as well as a mathematician and math blogger. Put simply, James is a math rock star.
That’s why we teamed up with James to release the Piles & Holes series of four interactive, project-based lessons, which we call Challenges, on the Cashtivity platform. These lessons align with Grade 6 math standards.
In Piles & Holes, students share and reason about the number system - positive and negative numbers - by digging in sand to create piles - and holes. A pile is a positive 1, a hole is a negative 1, and flat sand is zero. Piles and Holes was created with James Tanton and based on his ideas about negative numbers.
Recently, Dr. Tanton sat down with Dr. Wilson Tsang, a math educator for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation STEM Leadership Institute at Cabrillo Middle School. Wilson had enjoyed a 20-year career that spanned academic research, product development consulting, and medical devices R&D before becoming a math teacher in a public school.
Their discussion ranged from Piles & Holes to the joys of math and life as a classroom math teacher. We asked Wilson about his thoughts on mathematics teaching, the state of mathematics education, and his reactions to his conversation with James and the story of Piles and Holes.
People who do math for a living are often critical about the way we teach math in the US. What are your thoughts on current math education?
Education is ultimately about student learning. So the question we should be asking is What is it students need to experience to understand a math concept like negative numbers?
Students need to be allowed to have that eureka moment. It’s not just memorizing facts. Rather, it’s a single space of time in which the concept explodes on the student’s understanding. Exploding Dots - James’ innovation - creates those moments. So does Piles and Holes.
Most public school teachers don’t have enough time to do “fun math.” They have a heavy caseload of required content to teach. How can they bring real world lessons into their classrooms?
Each teacher needs to strive for their own “exploding dot” moments when kids engage in math concepts and activities. It’s a matter of combining things like fun and real-world context that leads to engagement, ultimately crystallizing math concepts in students’ minds.
How does classroom diversity affect student learning in math?
Classroom diversity is a wonderful thing, but it’s extremely difficult for a teacher to educate students with a range of abilities in the traditional format of direct instructions.The concept of "low-floor-high-ceiling" student activities may make it easier for the teacher to target the learners’ sweet spot and create that “exploding dot" moment.
Global Math Week is coming up again in 2018. Let’s talk about that.
It’s a very exciting time coming next October - 2018. James is going to expand Exploding Dots into finding mathematical phenomena in recurring numbers. Global Math Week is a great time for teachers to try out a little piece of Exploding Dots with their students. Experiment with the concepts. See how students react. Teachers can follow us on Twitter or Facebook and post comments using the hashtag #gmw2018.
What are your thoughts about applied math vs. pure math?
James always had a love for pure math, while Wilson, as an engineer, initially only thought applied math was best. Now as an educator he sees both sides.
Why did you start collaborating with Cashtivity?
The collaboration with Cashtivity is an amazing way to bring context and real world connections to learning math. The Piles & Holes Challenges are like mini projects, which can create that key eureka moment. And because it is accessible online, a class can be up and running in no time.
The team at Cashtivity is doing great work because they listen to teachers and educators like us. Cashtivity uses the same “real-world lessons” concept that James does. It works, and it benefits educators and students alike.
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Cashtivity Challenges are a supplementary curriculum of interactive lessons focused on helping your students apply their math skills in the real world, expanding their context of how math works while increasing awareness of the world around them & preparing them for college & careers. Designed for a 45-60 minute math class, each challenge is a self driven short story teachers & students instantly connect with, based on current events and the world of work. Challenges are aligned to state math standards and career & technical standards.
The James Tanton collection of Piles & Holes Challenges are exclusive to Cashtivity and available for math teachers everywhere. Simply sign in at www.cashtivity.com to create a code for your students. Students login with the code using the web browser on their chromebooks, laptops, or ipads.
Dr. Wilson Tsang, Silicon Valley Education Foundation STEM Leadership Institute, Cabrillo Middle School