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What is mathematical investigation?

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 students 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 wont 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.