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Probability inquiry

Colm Sweet (a maths teacher in West Sussex, UK) devised this prompt in 2007 and was the first to use it in a classroom. The prompt has led to highly successful inquiries, combining student-led exploration and teacher instruction. The inquiries have moved from calculations of theoretical probabilities to models that attempt to take account of 'real world' considerations.
Selecting questions
The teacher might require students to pose questions in the lesson before the inquiry is due to start. This gives the teacher time to restrict the inquiry to particular topics. The selected questions can then be presented to the students in the form of a co-created worksheet (see example below).
As it is not always evident to students that the prompt can be linked to probability, the teacher might guide the orientation phase of the inquiry more than is the case for other inquiries on the website. For example, the teacher could restrict questions and comments to those that relate to picking balls from the triangle or to the arrangement of the 'racked' balls. Thus, questions and comments have included the probability of picking certain colours (or of not picking a certain colour) and the probability of picking a given sequence of two or three balls. They have also involved the probability of racking the balls in the way shown or racking the reds and blues in rows of two and three respectively. In the early phases of the inquiry, the teacher is advised to establish that each outcome - that is, the result of picking one of the six balls - is equally likely.  
The prompt has exposed students' misconceptions of probability. Some examples of statements that have generated class discussion or led to requests for teacher instruction are:
  • There are 27 possible permutations of blue, yellow and red balls if you select three balls with no replacement (not taking account of what balls are left in the triangle).
  • The probability of choosing blue, red and yellow in that order is 6/15.(attempting, incorrectly, to add the fractions instead of multiplying them).
  • The probability of picking three balls without any blues is 3/19 (believing that all outcomes are equally likely).
  • The probability of a combination of red, blue and yellow is 1/20 (confusing 'combination' with 'permutation').
In classroom inquiry to date, the prompt has been extended in two ways:
  • Teachers have introduced students to the meaning of the nCr and nPr buttons on a scientific calculator; and
  • Different constraints have been applied to the prompt to increase the complexity of the inquiry. For example, students co-constructed a context (under the teacher's guidance) in which the outcomes of selecting different balls are not equally likely. They proposed that the selection is made by 'standing' at the bottom right-hand corner. In that case, it was surmised that the probability of picking the first red ball is twice as high as the probability of picking the two balls in the second row (yellow and blue), which, in turn, are twice as likely to be picked as the three remaining balls. The probability calculations that followed took into account the new context.
Alternative prompt 
P(2 heads and 2 tails) when you flip 4 coins = 
2 x P(1 head and 1 tail) when you flip 2 coins   
This prompt was devised by Nicola Stokes (a Head of Mathematics in East Sussex, UK). Nicola tried it out with her year 9 class. The students responded to the prompt by asking the questions and making the statements above. Nicola reports that the prompt "worked really nicely and all of the class chose to continue to investigate if the prompt was true as they couldn't immediately see that it wasn't." During the inquiry, the students developed fluency in constructing sample space diagrams and tree diagrams.

These documents show the questions and comments that arose in the initial phase of two inquiries. The teachers collated the responses for students to choose a problem to continue the inquiry.
Probability inquiry - questions and comments - Year 10 higher tier GCSE class.
Problems on the probability triangle - Worksheet for a year 9 higher ability class.
Prompt sheet
Promethean flipchart    download
Smartboard notebook   download

The prompt in action
James Thorpe gives his reflections after using the prompt with different classes: “The beauty of the prompt is that it can be used to tackle probability problems from simple outcomes to more complicated combinations. The screen shots show some of the discussion that took place with a year 9 (higher ability) class on what we could try to find out and how.
We tackled these problems over 3 lessons. I used a worksheet that included questions that came from the pupils' ideas (see ‘Resources’). Starting with the triangle, we covered simple probability, combinations, AND, OR and expectation. The nature of the lessons allowed me to stretch them further than I might have done with a more traditional approach and the students had a sense of ownership of the inquiry. We did stretch to consider picking 3 balls. I showed them how to consider the binomial distribution and the N choose R button on the calculator to find the number of calculations, which the students
liked. If you have good ideas on how to further prompt the pupils to come up with interesting questions and a clear vision of the minimum content that needs to be covered, then this is an engaging way to present a probability unit.”

James Thorpe was a maths teacher at John Taylor High School, Staffordshire (UK) at the time of the inquiry. He taught parts of the maths curriculum through inquiry and devised his own prompts.
Presenting inquiry
This presentation sheet was designed on the model of Emma Morgan's guided posters, which she discusses in her blog on inquiry maths.