Using mathematical inquiry to make mathematics meaningful

At the moment I’m involved in a project with the Sydney Metro (Transport for NSW), currently the largest infrastructure project in Australia. When complete, the Sydney Metro project is going to change the way many Sydney residents work, live and socialise. My involvement with this project has required me to design, deliver and research the effectiveness of a professional learning program. In this program, teachers from all stages of schooling and a range of curriculum areas learn about using inquiry based learning and then design, implement and evaluate units of work that use the Sydney Metro project as the stimulus for inquiry.  So what’s that got to do with engaging maths? My work in this project has confirmed what I’ve always believed – contextualising learning makes mathematics (and other disciplines, of course) more meaningful, purposeful and relevant for students. It shifts the traditional approach of ‘just in case’ learning to ‘just in time learning’.

Using contexts from student’s lives, such as Sydney Metro, makes mathematics come alive. For example, some of the students participating in the inquiry based units are looking at the social implications of having a rail station constructed in their community where there previously wasn’t one. This inquiry provides a purpose for designing survey questions, collecting, representing and analysing data that has meaning and purpose. Others are looking at the engineering aspects of the project relating to the tunnelling that is currently underway. Some are working on design aspects relating to the trains themselves or the stations and some are looking at mapping – planning future metro lines, or timing (the system won’t have a timetable).

The possibilities are endless, but for these units of work (or indeed, any inquiry based unit of work) to be successful, the teachers planning them have to consider carefully the potential directions that students will take their inquiry if the units are to be true inquiry based learning that is driven by students’ interests. This requires a strong knowledge of curriculum and a willingness to hand over some control of the learning to the students. It may even involve the introduction of content beyond the students’ current grade.
Another consideration when planning inquiry units is the inclusion of other aspects of our curriculum, beyond content. For example, in mathematics we have the Proficiencies (Working Mathematically in NSW) that represent the processes of mathematics. It’s impossible to conduct inquiry based learning without these processes and inquiry learning is a perfect opportunity to develop, refine and show evidence of these processes. Then we have the General Capabilities. Again, inquiry based learning provides an opportunity to access mathematics while accessing these capabilities, enhancing the relevance of the learning.

Where do you find resources for inquiry? Take a look around at what is happening in your community, in the media, or simply the things that your students are interested in. Consider how those things could spark curiosity in your students (or how you could promote that curiosity within  your students). Model how to ask good questions (students need to know how to do this – it doesn’t always come naturally). Be prepared for it to get messy, search for resources that the students might need or help them find resources. Be prepared to teach a range of mathematical concepts as the need arises.

I’ll you with an example of a resource that I believe would be a great stimulus for inquiry – take a look, at let me know what you think! Every Drop Counts