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What is Mathematical Investigation

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092010

Mar

**Mathematical investigation refers to the sustained exploration of a mathematical situation. It distinguishes itself
**

from problem solving because it is open-ended.

I first heard about math investigations in 1990 when I attended a postgraduate course in Australia. I love it

right away and it has since become one of my favorite mathematical activity for my students who were so

proud of themselves when they finished their first investigation.

Problem solving is a convergent activity. It has definite goal – the solution of the problem. Mathematical

investigation on the other hand is more of a divergent activity. In mathematical investigations, students are

expected to pose their own problems after initial exploration of the mathematical situation. The exploration of

the situation, the formulation of problems and its solution give opportunity for the development of independent

mathematical thinking and in engaging in mathematical processes such as organizing and recording data,

pattern searching, conjecturing, inferring, justifying and explaining conjectures and generalizations. It is these

thinking processes which enable an individual to learn more mathematics, apply mathematics in other

discipline and in everyday situation and to solve mathematical (and non-mathematical) problems. Teaching

anchored on mathematical investigation allows for students to learn about mathematics, especially the nature

of mathematical activity and thinking. It also make them realize that learning mathematics involves intuition,

systematic exploration, conjecturing and reasoning, etc and not about memorizing and following existing

procedures. The ultimate aim of mathematical investigation is develop students’ mathematical habits of mind.

Although students may do the same mathematical investigation it is not expected that all of them will consider

the same problem from a particular starting point. The “open-endedness” of many investigation also means

that students may not completely cover the entire situation. However, at least for a student’s own satisfaction,

the achievement of some specific results for an investigation is desirable. What is essential is that the students

will experience the following mathematical processes which are the emphasis of mathematical investigation:

systematic exploration of the given situation

formulating problems and conjectures

attempting to provide mathematical justifications for the conjectures.

In this kind of activity and teaching, students are given more opportunity to direct their own learning

experiences. Note that a problem solving task can be turned into an investigation task by extending the

problem by varying for example one of the conditions. To know more about problem solving and how they differ

with math investigation read my post on Exercises, Problem Solving and Math Investigation.

Some parents and even teachers complain that students are not learning mathematics in this kind of activity.

Indeed they won’t if the teacher will not discuss the results of the investigation, highlight and correct the

misconceptions, synthesize students’ findings and help students make connection among the math concepts

covered in the investigation. This goes without saying that teachers should try the investigation first before

giving it to the students.

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