How do experienced teachers set up a culture in their classroom that encourages their students to participate in inquiry? In inquiry, students are expected to address complex problems where solutions are not immediately obvious, and a single correct solution does not exist. This can be confronting for students who have - until finding themselves in your classroom - enjoyed the satisfaction of getting the right answer in maths by taking a specific taught approach which leads to the preferred answer. Learning through inquiry requires student exploration, obtaining mathematical evidence to make a claim and then defending the claim in a process of argumentation. When addressing such problems, children need to be supported in their learning and thus the term ‘Guided Mathematical Inquiry (GMI)’ is adopted.
One key requirement, which is the focus of this case study, is that of learners becoming accustomed to working with mathematical evidence. Evidence needs to be appropriate and sufficient to support and justify the claims students make in GMI. Research suggests that students experience difficulties when working with evidence: students may make an assertion but tend not to see a need for evidence to support that assertion (Fielding-Wells, 2010; Muller Mirza et al., 2009); or may not recognise when they have too little or inaccurate evidence (Zeidler, 1997); or may be used to relying on the teacher to provide this detail. The researchers in this paper were interested in seeing how experienced GMI teachers focused their students on an evidence-based approach to mathematics.
Seven experienced GMI teachers (between 1- and 10-years’ experience each) were asked to consider the ways in which students engaged with mathematical evidence, based across all Inquiries they had undertaken. The teachers brainstormed all instances of student involvement with evidence during each phase. The comprehensive overview reflected how students need to Envisage Evidence in the Discover phase; Plan for Evidence in the Devise phase; Generate Evidence in the Develop phase and Conclude with Evidence in the Defend phase.
However, through the inquiry (described below) the students were able to develop a more robust conceptual understanding of aspects of geometry and measurement: they developed a referent benchmark for a litre; made links between 3D shapes and their nets; and made connections between volume and capacity. These are key conceptual understandings children require to continue to more complex concepts.
Inquiry question: Can you make a one litre container out of paper?
Fielding-Wells, J. & Fry, K. (in press). Introducing Guided Mathematical Inquiry in the Classroom: Complexities of Developing Norms of Evidence. Proceedings of the 42nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia). Perth: MERGA.
Fielding-Wells, J. (2010). Linking problems, conclusions and evidence: Primary students’ early experiences of planning statistical investigations. In C. Reading (Ed.), Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Teaching Statistics. Voorburg, The Netherlands: International Statistical Institute.
Muller Mirza, N., Perret-Clermont, A.-N., Tartas, V., & Iannaccone, A. (2009). Psychosocial processes in argumentation. In N. Muller Mirza & A.-N. Perret-Clermont (Eds.), Argumentation and education: Theoretical foundations and practices (pp. 67-90). New York: Springer.
Zeidler, D.L. (1997). The central role of fallacious thinking in science education. Science Education, 81(4), 483-496.
This post summarises the chapter The pedagogy of mathematical inquiry (Makar, 2012).
What does the pedagogy of mathematical inquiry mean specifically for teachers and learners? This chapter provides an in-depth overview of the key elements of mathematical inquiry pedagogy, what it looks like in a real year 6/7 classroom (ages 10-13) and provides theoretical connections to highlight important implications for teaching and teacher education.
The idea of exploring the question Which bubble gum is best? enthuses students, as they determine the qualities that they value in bubble gum. Benefits of posing mathematical problems through ill-structured questions include opening up ways for students to enter the solution process, providing opportunities for students to negotiate with peers how to address such problems, and presenting a need for students to justify their conclusions using the process they use to answer the question. The inquiry teacher in this chapter mathematises the context of exploring bubble gum to determine which is best and students create mathematical strategies to compare different brands of bubble gum. Four phases provide a framework for teaching and learning mathematics through inquiry: Discover, Devise, Develop and Defend. These phases offer teachers and their students, purposeful ways to navigate mathematically through an inquiry.
The chapter illustrates how one teacher, April Frizzle, conducts an inquiry in her multi-age classroom to find the best bubble gum. Although she initially refers to the experience as "the disaster of the bubble gum experiment!" April reflects on the challenges she has in trying to balance taking control of the lesson, and giving her students the opportunity to develop ways to collect and interpret the data they collect. The author of this chapter is able to summarise the positive experiences that April identifies and how these experiences benefit the learners in April’s classroom the next time they encounter a mathematical inquiry. What is the best orange? is a similar inquiry task that the students tackle the following term. It becomes clearer how the struggles from the first inquiry are now beneficial to the teachers and learners and April articulates some transfer between the two units. In particular, April comments on how the inquiry experiences have materialised her students’ beliefs about the nature of mathematics and how that changed the way they were now willing to approach problems.
The final sections of the chapter considers theoretically, how the pedagogy of mathematical inquiry aligns with research on teaching and learning mathematics. These links highlight the importance of engaging diverse learners in mathematics and the author refers particularly to a theoretical framework (Harel & Koichu, 2010) that analyses learning through inquiry in three ways: as struggle, as purposeful, and as providing students with repeated opportunities to reason in meaningful ways. Ambiguity in inquiry topics offers a space for students to construct understandings as they struggle to reach their mathematical conclusions. Teachers are required to balance letting students construct their understandings with the need to support and scaffold that learning. The relevance of mathematics becomes important to students when teachers successfully mathematise a problem situation. Meaningful contexts help students see a problem as important to solve and the openness of inquiry questions lets students see there can be more than one way to solve such problems. Over time, engaging with mathematical learning through inquiry presents repeated opportunities to apply and build understandings. Students and their teacher in the class described above transferred “met-before” (McGowena & Tall, 2010) mathematical struggles with the bubblegum unit of understanding the need for measurement, to quantitatively measure the qualitative characteristics of oranges.
Bubblegum and oranges surprisingly presented opportunities for Ms Frizzle to negotiate what a culture of inquiry meant in her classroom, with her students. This illustration may not reflect the habits and norms in your own classroom and this process requires guidance and explicit support. Consider some of the research on this site on developing a culture of inquiry in your classroom, to help you decide upon what you want your mathematical inquiry classroom to look like.
Summary by Kym Fry
Harel, G., & Koichu, B. (2010). An operational definition of learning. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 29, 115–124.
McGowena, M. A., Tall, D. O. (2010). Metaphor or met-before? The effects of previous experience on practice and theory of learning mathematics. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 29, 169-179.