a/k/a Oh Come On, A Pokémon Go #3Act, Are You Kidding Me With This?

Karim Ani, the founder of Mathalicious, hassles me because I design problems about water tanks while Mathalicious tackles issues of greater sociological importance. Traditionalists like Barry Garelick see my 3-Act Math project as superficial multimedia whizbangery and wonder why we don’t just stick with thirty spiraled practice problems every night when that’s worked pretty well for the world so far. Basically everybody I follow on Twitter cast a disapproving eye at posts trying to turn Pokémon Go into the future of education, posts which no one will admit to having written in three months, once Pokémon Go has fallen farther out of the public eye than Angry Birds.

So this 3-Act math task is bound to disappoint everybody above. It’s a trivial question about a piece of pop culture ephemera wrapped up in multimedia whizbangery.

But I had to testify. That’s what this has always been — a testimonial — where by “this” I mean this blog, these tasks, and my career in math education to date.

I don’t care about Pokémon Go. I don’t care about multimedia. I don’t care about the sociological importance of a question.

I care about math’s power to puzzle a person and then help that person unpuzzle herself. I want my work always to testify to that power.

So when I read this article about how people were tricking their smartphones into thinking they were walking (for the sake of achievements in Pokémon Go), I was puzzled. I was curious about other objects that spin, and then about ceiling fans, and then I wondered how long a ceiling fan would have to spin before it had “walked” a necessary number of kilometers. I couldn’t resist the question.

That doesn’t mean you’ll find the question irresistible, or that I think you should. But I feel an enormous burden to testify to my curiosity. That isn’t simple.

“Math is fun,” argues mathematics professor Robert Craigen. “It takes effort to make it otherwise.” But nothing is actually like that — intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Every last thing — pure math, applied math, your favorite movie, everything — requires humans like ourselves to testify on its behalf.

In one kind of testimonial, I’d stand in front of a class and read the article word-for-word. Then I’d work out all of this math in front of students on the board. I would circle the answer and step back.


But everything I’ve read and experienced has taught me that this would be a lousy testimonial. My curiosity wouldn’t become anybody else’s.

Meanwhile, multimedia allows me to develop a question with students as I experienced it, to postpone helpful tools, information, and resources until they’re necessary, and to show the resolution of that question as it exists in the world itself.

I don’t care about the multimedia. I care about the testimonial. Curiosity is my project. Multimedia lets me testify on its behalf.

So why are you here? What is your project? I care much less about the specifics of your project than I care how you testify on its behalf.

I care about Talking Points much less than Elizabeth Statmore. I care about math mistakes much less than Michael Pershan. I care about elementary math education much less than Tracy Zager and Joe Schwartz. I care about equity much less than Danny Brown and identity much less than Ilana Horn. I care about pure mathematics much less than Sam Shah and Gordi Hamilton. I care about sociological importance much less than Mathalicious. I care about applications of math to art and creativity much less than Anna Weltman.

But I love how each one of them testifies on behalf of their project. When any of them takes the stand to testify, I’m locked in. They make their project my own.


Why are you here? What is your project? How do you testify on its behalf?

Related: How Do You Turn Something Interesting Into Something Challenging?

[Download the goods.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Feel like you need to put a *no cell phones were harmed in the making of this* warning :). Great idea Dan – may use this as one of my first day of school lessons!

  2. I think we need to capitalize on curiosity… That’s what learning is about! Whether it’s reading, history, science or MATH! Somehow we have turned school into a drudgery of skills and practice of facts that are soon forgotten after a test. I’d rather teach kids to ask questions, wonder and be curious about the world!! Love the excitement and engagement that 3Act Tasks have given students. Finding out that often students find better questions to explore than mine!

  3. What’s wonderful about this post is the understanding that there are folks in the online community who have passion and a depth of expertise for their specific educational view, yet we all can benefit from their journey and contribute to it.

    My project has been more local than global, yet important to me as I grow as an educator – to help colleagues discover the importance of developing their own PLC outside our school district’s contours. I’m thrilled that a group of teachers in my building has joined me on this ride, and for us in this group professional development has morphed from something our home district does for us, to individual growth we do for ourselves and for our students.

  4. “Why are you here? What is your project? How do you testify on its behalf?”

    Not a big blogger myself…. yet. But very inspired by this blog to begin testifying on GRADING. In recent years I have seen this part of the educational culture do much more damage than good. Thank you Dan for inspiring me to at least start writing some about this topic. Hopefully it will help me to continue adding ideas!

  5. I can see how talking my trendy things can be regarded as short-term gains to capture the attention of millennials students who tend to have shorter attention span these days, but I can also see that in general, genuine curiosity then will shine through as well. Every one of us has different aims, so I can see how it could be hard for one to appreciate what the others are doing. Thanks for reminding us about the purpose of our projects. Asking this every morning helps keep our project alive.

  6. This Pokemon go math is phenomenal. I can’t wait to use it in my class next week.

    I care about what my kids going to do when they leave my classroom. To some of them, my math classes are the last pieces of math classes in their lives- if they don’t plan to take any math in the college. I just want to make this experience meaningful to them.

    I want to train my kids to solve daily life problems using basic math thinking and skills. This is what it means so much to be as a math teacher.

    I love these 3 Act math projects! They are fantastic. As a math teacher working in Asia with whole lot of Asian kids, I feel sad when my kids do not have a good sense of number.

    I do have kids that get straight A or really high SAT scores, but fail to solve real life problems. When I asked them how do you know how fast the escalator in MRT station goes, they became silent.

    Thank you, Dan, for posting this article. It’s great to think/reflect about the project that I am working on.

  7. As I was reading your list of people who care more than you about certain aspects, It struck me that no one cared more than you about the role of statistics in mathematics education and education for life. I suspect it is not because you care a whole lot about statistics, but rather, it has gone under the radar!

    I know I care a lot more about teaching statistics at all levels than just about anyone I know. Arthur Benjamin gave a wonderful short TED talk on how statistics is a better culminating point for mathematics education than calculus. I care at least as much as he does. https://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education?language=en

    Being statistically literate is essential to agency and empowerment, and an ingredient in social justice in this age of the data deluge. For many students, the instant applicability of statistics (when taught appropriately) can be the door to enjoying and engaging with mathematics.

    I have written 136 posts on how to teach statistics on one of my blogs: https://learnandteachstatistics.wordpress.com/

    And I now have a new blog on building a statistics learning community, which focuses on primary (elementary) education, and a Kickstarter we will be running soon to develop fantastic rich, versatile cat cards to join our Dragonistics Data cards. https://statisticslearningcentre.wordpress.com/

    Primary, secondary and tertiary educators have so much they can learn from each other and from the connections. This too, I testify of!

    Here is a summary of our impact to date: http://statslc.com/impact.php

    Dan, your work has been inspirational to me, and you are one of the next maths rockstars (after Jo Boaler) who will be featured on my blog.

    So thanks for the invitation to testify! And maybe one day you will say “I care less about teaching statistics than Dr Nic.”

    Dr Nic

  8. Patrick Dugas

    August 30, 2016 - 9:55 am -


    Thanks! Very timely, as my students are just learning about angular and linear speed in Precalculus. What a great way for them to connect to the topic and make the mathematics behind it more meaningful.

    Pat Dugas
    Carrollton High School, IL

  9. Beatriz Valenzuela

    September 4, 2016 - 1:09 pm -

    In the math department I am currently in, we try to create interactive lessons in which students can gain in depth knowledge about the content we are teaching to them. This is such a great way to catch students’ attention and see how they understand the mathematical concept. There are many students that I struggle with because they simply hate the subject and are not interested in it. When it comes to lessons that are fun and relatable they totally join in. Thanks for this great idea!

  10. Thanks for reminding me about the fan. I am prepping a 75 minute workshop session for kids using Pokemon Go screen shots to provoke spontaneous mathematics. The difficulty is in finding a progression that starts simply and works its way up to more complex opportunities. The fan idea is a nice middle ground. http://i.imgur.com/HsYHxEW.jpg will be a fun place to start.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated!

  11. I wish I had more knowledge of Pokémon Go so I knew what affected the weight like that. Good luck with the activity, Beth.