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Exploring Logical Reasoning and Mathematical Proof in Grade 6

Elementary School Students

Article  in  Canadian Journal of Science Mathematics and Technology Education · January 2013

DOI: 10.1080/14926156.2013.758326


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University of Western Macedonia


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Exploring Logical Reasoning and

Mathematical Proof in Grade 6
Elementary School Students
a b
Konstantinos Flegas & Lemonidis Charalampos
Ontario Certified Teacher , Ontario , Canada
Mathematics Education , University of Western Macedonia , Greece
Published online: 28 Feb 2013.

To cite this article: Konstantinos Flegas & Lemonidis Charalampos (2013) Exploring Logical Reasoning
and Mathematical Proof in Grade 6 Elementary School Students, Canadian Journal of Science,
Mathematics and Technology Education, 13:1, 70-89, DOI: 10.1080/14926156.2013.758326

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AND TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION, 13(1), 70–89, 2013
ISSN: 1492-6156 print / 1942-4051 online
DOI: 10.1080/14926156.2013.758326

Exploring Logical Reasoning and Mathematical Proof

in Grade 6 Elementary School Students
Konstantinos Flegas
Ontario Certified Teacher, Ontario, Canada

Lemonidis Charalampos
Mathematics Education, University of Western Macedonia, Greece
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Abstract: Research and classroom experience reveal that the construction of mathematical proofs is
difficult for all students. While many contemporary mathematics curricula recognize the importance
of teaching reasoning and proof, in Greece these concepts are introduced at the secondary education
level. In this study, we will attempt to investigate a group of 19 grade 6 elementary school students’
ability to reason logically, to justify an argument, and to prove mathematical conjectures. The results
of this study indicate that, even though the process of justification is difficult for students, they were
able to demonstrate skills related to mathematical proof.
Résumé: La recherche et l’expérience pratique en classe montrent que la construction des preuves
mathématiques est difficile pour tous les élèves. Bien que de nombreux curriculums de mathématiques
reconnaissent l’importance de l’enseignement des preuves et du raisonnement, en Grèce ces concepts
sont introduits au niveau secondaire. Dans cette étude, nous tenterons d’analyser les capacités d’un
groupe de 19 élèves de 6ème élémentaire lorsqu’ils doivent faire des raisonnements logiques, justifier
un argument et prouver des hypothèses mathématiques. Les résultats de cette étude indiquent que
le processus de justification est difficile pour les élèves, mais que ceux-ci s’avèrent assez habiles
lorsqu’il s’agit de preuves mathématiques.


Over the past decades, in the context of various reform efforts in mathematics curricula around
the world, researchers, mathematicians, and educators of all levels have expressed a common
appreciation for the educational value of reasoning and proof. If you overlook the different
approaches and views on the nature and role of proof in education, then the largest part of research
findings in combination with the positive results displayed in education systems that have already
incorporated reasoning and proof in their curricula suggest that the two concepts should be given a
central role in the teaching and learning of mathematics. In 2000, The National Council of Teach-
ers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) Principles and Standards document recommended that the teaching
and learning of reasoning and proof should take place at all levels of education. In 2005, the

Address correspondence to Konstantinos Flegas, Ontario, Canada. E-mail:


Ontario mathematics curriculum for Grades 1–8 made a list of seven process expectations,
including reasoning and proving, “which students need to learn and apply throughout the year,
regardless of the strand being studied” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 7). In 2010,
California’s Common Core Content Standards for Mathematics document included the NCTM’s
process standards (California Department of Education, 2010) and highlighted the importance
for “designers of curricula, assessments, and professional development . . . to attend to the need
to connect the mathematical practices to mathematical content in mathematics instruction”
(p. 2).
The inclusion of reasoning and proof in contemporary curricula has generated many studies
(e.g., Dreyfus, 1999; Mariotti, 2006; Schoenfeld, 1994; Segal, 2000). These studies have recorded
that students of all levels (from primary to tertiary education) face considerable difficulties when
asked to justify the validity of a mathematical conjecture. But what can young students do?
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As far as elementary students are concerned, a limited number of investigations have shown
that Grade 5 students can construct generic arguments and persuade their classmates (Zack,
1997); Grade 4 to Grade 6 students can effectively use elements of proof to effectively justify a
mathematical conjecture (Lester, 1975); a Grade 5 student that had been exposed to proof-related
activities since Grade 1 had the ability to construct an empirical proof in order to justify a solution
to a problem (Maher & Martino, 1996); most Grade 6 to Grade 8 students use empirical proofs
(Knuth, Slaughter, Choppin, & Sutherland, 2002); elementary school students use externally based
schemes of justification, empirical schemes of justification, and analytic justification schemes
(Flores, 2002); young students can develop mathematical arguments that have high potential to
be called proofs in the elementary grades (Stylianides, 2007b); and engagement in proving can
support even elementary students to explore why things work in mathematics, thus providing
them with a solid basis for conceptual understanding (Stylianides & Ball, 2008).
In the Greek education system, reasoning and proof standards are not included as distinct cur-
riculum goals for primary education, though they appear at higher levels of education. Therefore,
it is frequently observed that though Greek students effectively solve mathematical problems,
they are unable to justify their solution with logical arguments. In their attempt to address the
aforementioned students’ difficulties, different education systems are trying to incorporate rea-
soning and proof in their mathematics curricula, because, as Ball and Bass (2003) argued, “the
notion of mathematical understanding is meaningless without a serious emphasis on reasoning”
(p. 28). Because many researchers and educators believe that reasoning and proving make up
the essence of mathematics and that the presence of these elements is a necessity for any con-
temporary curriculum that is geared toward the learning of mathematics with understanding,
the question that must be answered is: What forms of reasoning and proof should be taught
in primary education in order to help students overcome proof related difficulties and to help
them construct a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and strategies? To successfully
answer the above question, researchers and educators must first investigate and record the forms
and elements of proof that young students have the capacity to use in the classroom. In our
view, teaching mathematics with understanding means to optimally utilize a student’s strengths
in order to develop new skills. Therefore, the journey to formal proofs should begin with the
elements and forms of proof that young students have the capacity to comprehend and utilize. To
establish the above context that promotes reasoning and proving skills at the elementary school
level, additional investigation is needed into the different elements of proof that are suitable for

younger ages. For example, Stylianides (2007a) argued that “it is important to investigate . . . the
role of assumptions in proving” (p. 382).
Initially, this study presents a literature review of recent research efforts on the topic of
teaching mathematical proof in elementary schools. This is followed by the investigation of this
article that attempts to describe the performance of 19 Grade 6 students in a public elementary
school in Greece during their task to reason and prove mathematically. Although the majority of
the relevant studies at the elementary school level have materialized in the context of curricula
or school programs that have already introduced reasoning and proof, our approach differs in
that the students of our study had never been officially exposed to mathematical activities that
incorporated reasoning and proving. Thus, our main goal was to examine how students that have
not been taught about mathematical proof use their reasoning skills to justify a mathematical
sentence and to record and identify any elements of proof that the aforementioned students were
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able to use in the specific investigation. Finally, in the last section, the results and the conclusions
of the investigation are presented alongside with possible pedagogic applications and research


Different research approaches have been generated to address the difficulties in teaching math-
ematical proof and logical reasoning. Some researchers tried to conceptualize the meaning of
proof for elementary school mathematics (Stylianides, 2007b) or examined the relationship of
reasoning with mathematical proof (Balacheff, 1991; Harel & Sowder, 1998); others investigated
the students’ capacity to formulate theorems (Mariotti, 2000); some described the cognitive pro-
cesses associated with geometric reasoning (Fischbein, 1993); and other researchers developed
theories and theoretical frameworks in their effort to study mathematical education systems and
to model the behaviors of students and teachers in relation to mathematical knowledge and, in
particular, to mathematical proof (Boero, 1989; Brousseau, 2005; Stylianides, 2007c).
The diversity of approaches in regards to reasoning and proving explains the fact that among
contemporary mathematical and educational communities there “are conflicting opinions on
the role of proof in mathematics and in particular on what makes a proof acceptable” (Hanna,
2000, p. 6). Purist mathematicians and educators equate the concepts of proof and mathematics.
However, are formal proofs and deductive reasoning suitable for elementary school students?
Recent research results have compelled many researchers to disagree with the traditional view
that formal proofs constitute the sole means of justification and verification of mathematical
conjectures. Hanna (2000) and Hersh (1993) argued that proofs that only convince are often
not suitable for classrooms; they recommended the use of proofs that convince and explain.
Hanna (2000) provided a list of the functions of proof and conceded that “proof can make its
greatest contribution in the classroom only when the teacher is able to use proofs that convey
understanding” and that it is important to “consider the whole range of functions which proof
performs in mathematical practice” (p. 7).
The educational value of reasoning and proof has been recognized by curriculum designers.
In 1995 the National Curriculum for Mathematics in England and Wales put an emphasis on the
processes involved in mathematics teaching and learning: “students were expected to engage in

problem solving, formulate and test conjectures and explain and justify conclusions” (Healy &
Hoyles, 2000, p. 398). Healy and Hoyles (2000) examined how the new curriculum expectations
influenced the students’ reasoning and proving skills “through an analysis of the conceptions
of proof held by students who had followed this curriculum” (p. 398). “After piloting with
182 students, the survey was administered to 2,459 Year 10 students (14 or 15 years-old) from
94 classes in 90 schools” (Healy & Hoyles, 1998a, Introduction, ¶4). Healy and Hoyles (2000)
observed that only 22% of the students were successful in constructing a complete proof for a
familiar conjecture and that most subjects preferred to construct mainly empirical and narrative
proofs. However, the researchers discovered that the ability to construct proofs is not only a
matter of mathematical attainment but that it is also a matter of curriculum influences. They
argued that “more attention to proving could enhance performance” and suggested that “more
explicit efforts should be made to engage students with proof while discussing with them the
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idea of proof at a meta-level, in terms of its meaning, generality and purposes” (Healy & Hoyles,
1998a, §11, ¶6).
In our study we attempted to examine the reasoning and proving skills demonstrated by
students that had never worked on this type of activity in school. The longitudinal study by
Healy and Hoyles (1998b) provided us with the general framework to organize our questionnaire
and to analyze the students’ responses. Therefore, in analyzing the results we have adopted the
researchers’ views about the different forms of proof: (a) An empirical proof is “an argument or
arguments characterized as specific, empirical, or requiring an action or concrete demonstration
with little or no explanation” (Healy & Hoyles, 2000, p. 400); (b) A visual proof is “an argument
that relied on common properties or a generic case” (Healy & Hoyles, 2000, p. 400). Specifically,
for the multiple-choice question the visual proof was “expressed visually with sets of dots
representing generic examples of even numbers (Kucheman & Hoyles, 2004, p. 39); (c) A
narrative proof is “an argument that suggests underlying reasons and explanations written in a
narrative everyday style” (Healy & Hoyles, 2000, p. 400); and (d) A formal proof is “a deductive
proof, written in a formal style, presenting a logical argument with explicit links made between
premises and conclusions” (Healy & Hoyles, 2000, p. 402). In addition, due to the fact that
reasoning and proving are not familiar activities to our subjects, it is important to explain that in
this article,

we use the words prove and proving to refer to the activity of reasoning deductively, regardless of
how this reasoning is expressed, and what purpose it serves. We use proof to refer to arguments which
are the expression of the activity of proving, whether verbal or written, formal or informal. (Reid &
Zack, 2009, p. 134)

Furthermore, in our article we discuss the danger of empirical arguments being perceived as
proofs and emphasize the importance of the social dimension of mathematical proofs (Stylianides,
2007b). In addition, for the purpose of our study it is “important to clarify that we do not associate
the notion of deductive reasoning with particular modes of representation, such as modes that
may be characterized as formal versus informal” (Stylianides & Stylianides, 2008, p. 108). Thus,
deductive reasoning is used in “proofs that are formulated as sequences of assertions that follow
logically from the accepted definitions” (Stylianides & Stylianides, 2008, p. 108). Finally, with the
term naı̈ve reasoning we are referring to arguments that do not establish the truth of an assertion.

Balacheff (1988) defined this as naı̈ve empiricism and argued that it “consists of asserting the
truth of a result after verifying several cases” (p. 218).


Goals of the Study

1. To examine whether young students from Greece are able to reason logically, to argue, and
to justify mathematical conjectures, even though the concepts of logical reasoning and
mathematical proof are not included as separate learning goals in the Greek elementary
school curriculum.
2. To highlight prior knowledge and existing perceptions that the students may possess about
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the concept of mathematical proof and its role in mathematics.

3. To evaluate the students’ performances in the construction of mathematical proofs and to
examine the reasonings they developed during the specific task.
4. To identify the difficulties that young students face in an activity that requires the use of
logical reasoning skills.



The study was conducted in May with the assistance of students that belonged to one of three
Grade 6 classes at a public elementary school in Thessaloniki. Nineteen students were enrolled in
the class, 12 boys and 7 girls. All of the students were between 11 and 12 years old. According to
the homeroom teacher, the participating students demonstrated an average performance in their
mathematics education, with slight variations upwards and downwards. The decision to select
Grade 6 students over other grades at the elementary school level was made for two reasons: First,
due to the fact that mathematical proof is not systematically taught in Greek elementary schools,
it is more likely that older, not younger, elementary school students will perform better in an
unfamiliar learning object; in this situation, mathematical tasks that examine students’ reasoning
and proving skills. Second, because the study took place between May 12 and May 15 (near the
end of the school year), Grade 6 students are theoretically ready to move up to the secondary
school level, where, according to the country’s curriculum, they will be taught mathematical proof
for the first time. Finally, it is worth noting that there were no major socioeconomic deviations
within the specific student population. (All students came from an average middle class family,
with no significant socioeconomic differentiation that needed to be recorded.)

Data Collection

Written questionnaires and interviews were used as data collection tools. First, the students
were given a questionnaire with proof-related tasks they had to complete. The questionnaire was
followed by student interviews, which were used to give them the opportunity to elaborate and
explain furthermore their answers in the questionnaire. The first phase with the questionnaire was
completed with all of the students present during a single teaching period (about 40–45 minutes),

whereas the second phase with the interviews lasted approximately 13 to 15 minutes for each
group of two or three students. The questionnaire was comprised of five questions. Questions 1,
3, 4, and 5 were borrowed from the NCTM’s 2005 publication entitled Mathematics Assessment
Sampler, Grades 3–5 (Gawronski, 2005). This book contains some activities that are related
to mathematical proof and it is aligned with the NCTM’s (2000) Principles and Standards for
School Mathematics. Even though the specific book focuses on assessment of Grades 3 to 5, we
selected the specific problems for our Grade 6 students for the reason that justifying and proving
was an unfamiliar and new experience to them. Furthermore, we made certain the questions that
were selected contained knowledge that the students should already have attained from their
mathematics education. Specifically, according to the Greek curriculum, students in Grade 6 are
expected to have acquired the following knowledge and skills:
1. By the end of Grade 5, students will be able to identify and construct parallel and
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perpendicular lines and basic geometric polygons. Additionally, they will be able to
calculate the perimeter and the area of basic geometric polygons.
2. By the end of Grade 6, students will be able to determine the solution to a simple equation
(one variable) that involves addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.
3. By the end of Grade 2, students will be able to distinguish between even and odd numbers.
Therefore, we attempted to observe and record how the subjects would apply knowledge acquired
throughout the years in elementary school to solve problems that incorporated the unfamiliar
element of constructing a mathematical proof.
The second task in the questionnaire, “When you add any two even numbers, your answer is
always even. Is this statement true or false?” is a multiple-choice activity that was used in the
longitudinal study Justifying and Proving in School Mathematics by Healy and Hoyles (1998b).
With this question the researchers tried to examine the types of proofs that high-attaining Year
10 students in the UK selected as “their own approach if asked to prove the given statement,
and which did they believe would receive the best mark” (Healy & Hoyles, 1998b, p. 1). The
above task was included in our study because it involves knowledge that our subjects should have
acquired from their education and because it provides a useful context to compare our results
because the specific question or modified versions of it have been used or documented by other
researchers too (Ball & Bass, 2003; Stylianides, 2007c). In our investigation, the above activity
was adapted and simplified to correspond to the knowledge level of our subjects. Additionally,
without this being a comparative study due to the different parameters involved, we set our
results against those of the aforementioned study in the UK in an attempt to find similarities and
differences in the views that the two groups of students hold about the role of proof. Finally, it is
important to point out that in the multiple-choice task the students had to answer and justify their
responses to the following three questions:
1. Which answer is more meaningful to you?
2. Which answer is more like the one that you would have given?
3. Which answer do you think will receive the highest mark from the teacher?
For the purposes of our study we have constructed a mixed-method research design with
“the inclusion of a quantitative phase and a qualitative phase” (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004,
p. 20). The questionnaire was mainly used to provide students with adequate time to familiarize
themselves with the questions and to think and prepare for the interview, which was the main
data collection tool of our investigation. The transcriptions of the interviews and the texts with

the students’ responses from the questionnaire were combined to comprise a more complete form
of the subjects’ responses. This integration of our findings from the two research tools provided
a body of data that was carefully analyzed in order to guarantee the greatest possible accuracy in
the reporting of the results.
In our analysis of student responses our aim was to highlight views of proof; compare answers;
identify patterns, similarities, and differences in thinking; and provide a general picture of the
forms of logical reasoning that were used to solve the problems in the questionnaire. Before
and during the interview, the students were able to check their written answers, and they were
asked to explain and clarify them in more detail. Each session involved two students. However,
there were three students present in the last session due to the total number of students. The
interviews were done with at least two students present to make them feel more comfortable and
secure with the process and to ensure that they would have the opportunity to converse, interact,
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exchange thoughts, and persuade each other about the correctness of their arguments in situations
where their responses were different. The interviews were recorded. The recorded material was
transcribed and data were analyzed in detail.

Data Analysis

The students’ responses were classified according to the criteria defined in the work of Healy
and Hoyles (1998b): (a) the correctness in the construction of a mathematical proof and (b) the
forms of arguments used in the construction of mathematical proofs. Thus, we will try to weigh
our results against the corresponding results of the UK study. The juxtaposition will be done to
the extent that it is feasible, because the different conditions and parameters of the two studies do
not support a genuine comparative study. However, we believe that this comparison of the results
recorded in the British investigation (i.e., with students who are exposed to reasoning and proof
activities) and the performance that was demonstrated by the Greek subjects (i.e., students who
experienced mathematical proof for the first time during this research effort) will provide some
useful insight and conclusions.


The data that were collected from the interview and the questionnaire were analyzed in order
to identify patterns, similarities, and differences in the students’ thinking, record ambiguities
and misconceptions, and highlight forms of logical reasoning that students use when they try
to convince a classmate that their answer is a valid mathematical statement. As we previously
noted, the Greek curriculum expectations indicate that by the end of Grade 6, students should
have constructed the necessary knowledge to correctly solve the problems in the questionnaire. In
regards to the correctness of the solutions, the homeroom teacher expected that most of his students
(around 13 out of 19) would be able to construct a correct solution for the algebraic and geometric
problems. This confidence about the students’ content knowledge made us overestimate our
predictions about the reasoning and proof aspect of our research, thus creating high expectations
in regards to their overall performance. In general, we believed that the subjects’ familiarity
with the content would lead to high scores in regards to the correctness of the solution and that
this would enable most of them to successfully justify their solutions with the help of simple

syllogisms. We will present now some characteristic responses that were analyzed according to
the criteria explained above.

Question 1

“Nick says that if a figure has four sides and the opposite sides are parallel, it must be a square. Do
you agree or disagree with Nick? You can use geometrical shapes in your answer” (adapted from
NCTM, 2005, p. 78).

Correctness of solution. In the first question the students had to assess whether the above
mathematical sentence is true and substantiate their arguments. The results can be seen in Table 1.
A characteristic answer to question 1 was given by student 7 (correct solution, sufficient
justification), who in the interview phase justified his reasoning in the following way:
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Chris: I disagree with Nick because a square has 4 equal sides and 2 pairs of opposite sides that are
Teacher: Is Nick describing a different shape?
Chris: Yes, the rectangle.
Teacher: Could it be another shape in addition to the rectangle?
Chris: I don’t know.
Teacher: Why is it a rectangle?
Chris: Because in a rectangle the opposite sides are equal and parallel and Nick doesn’t say that the
shape has four equal sides.

Overall, the students’ responses to the first geometric problem show that though all of them
responded with some sort of justification, none of them used formal mathematical language. It
is important to note that formal proofs were not observed in any of the study’s tasks. This result
was expected for two reasons: (a) the students in our study are not taught mathematical proof
and (b) the students were not instructed to use formal mathematical language or any one specific
type of proof. However, it should be clarified that they would not be discouraged to use formal
mathematical language, if they had decided to do so. The decision about the form of justification
was left open to the students, because our main objective was not to limit them to specific types of
reasoning but to explore and record the reasoning and proving skills that they were inclined to use.
Therefore, even though we did not expect the construction of formal proofs, for the purpose of this
study we mention this category as a possible solution because the students were free to construct
any form of justification they believed would be effective. Specifically, in the first question, only
4 students out of 19 provided a correct answer with sufficient justification. From the remaining
15 students, only 3 gave the correct answer but with insufficient justification, and 12 students gave
the wrong answer but tried to justify their reasoning to a certain degree. It is noteworthy that if we
do not take into account the form of justification, then overall only 7 students answered correctly.

Results for Question 1

Student: 17 18 1 5 11 14 15 4 2 6 13 19 3 12 9 7 8 10 16

Note. W = incorrect answer; C = correct answer; N = no justification; I = insufficient justification; S = sufficient

justfication; F = formal proof.

These results confirm the fact that students face many difficulties when they are asked to justify
a mathematical statement. In addition, it is evident that most of the students were unable to use
and apply their knowledge of familiar geometric concepts in this process. Additionally, one can
infer that a large percentage of students had not acquired basic geometric knowledge from their
elementary school education, a fact that contradicted our expectations and beliefs from before
the investigation. This knowledge limitation seemed to impede their capacity to think and reason
mathematically. Therefore, they failed not only to use the process of proof in their solution but,
at the same time, they were ineffective at reasoning and finding the correct solution. However,
if we consider that these students are not taught reasoning and proof in a systematic way, then
the fact that 4 students answered correctly and substantiated their reasoning in a satisfactory
way indicates that young students are capable of reasoning mathematically in familiar contexts
where substantial content knowledge has been consolidated. If knowledge improves mathematical
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reasoning and reasoning can enhance mathematical knowledge, then should not the teaching of
mathematics incorporate the processes involved in mathematics and not be restricted just to the
acquisition of knowledge and correct answers? Lastly, it is interesting to point out that all of the
students, regardless of the result, sought to explain how they solved the problem.

Form of Proof

In regards to the forms of proof that were constructed by the students, we observed that none of the
students decided to use logical arguments in formal mathematical language. However, all of the
students tried to somehow support their arguments and to convince others that they were correct.
Of the above seven students who responded correctly, four students presented narrative reasoning
skills and three were limited to naı̈ve reasoning skills. The first four students’ narratives explained
satisfactorily why the mathematical statement that was given to them was incorrect. For example,
student 10 stated: “I don’t agree with Nick because a square also has four equal sides, and not only
opposite sides that are parallel. The parallelogram has opposite sides that are parallel but that does
not mean it is a square.” Although the three students in the second group answered correctly, we
observed that they were not certain about their arguments, thus changing their views frequently
until they found the right answer. This is evident in the following discussion with student 3:

Tom: I don’t agree, because a square has four equal sides.

Teacher: Is Nick describing a different shape?
Tom: I think it could be a rectangle.
Teacher: Why do you think Nick is describing a rectangle?
Tom: Because opposite sides are parallel. [He stops to think, and then he says that he has changed his
mind and that Nick is describing a square because parallel lines are always equal.]
Teacher: Are parallel lines always equal?
Tom: Most of the times. [At this point the teacher goes back to the initial question and asks Tom if
he finally agrees or disagrees with Nick.]
Tom: In rectangles only opposite sides are equal. Squares have four equal sides. So Nick had to say
that the four sides are equal, for the shape to be a square.

The 12 students who gave an incorrect answer with an incomplete justification demonstrated
predominantly naı̈ve reasoning skills: one was content with the recasting of the mathematical
problem and the others tried to answer the problem with the presentation of false data. Therefore,
there were many errors and ambiguities in their responses, which indicates that they did not

possess the necessary knowledge that would have enabled them to develop a more effective
syllogism. Specifically, student 14 argued that the shape described by Nick “could be a circle
because the opposite sides are parallel lines”; student 11 said that Nick is wrong because the
shape could also be a parallelogram because “it has parallel and equal sides”; and student
18 stated that the shape could be a triangle because, as she explained: “I do not understand
exactly what parallel lines means.”

Question 2

(Multiple choice): Emmelia, Vasilios, Gabriel, and Chris tried to prove that the following
statement is true or false:
B. Vasilios
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A. Emmelia
Even numbers are divided evenly by
x is an even number 2.When you add numbers that are
y is an even number multiples of 2, then their sum will be a
multiple of 2. Therefore, the sum of
2x and 2y are even numbers even numbers is an even number.
So Vasilios says it is true.
So Emmelia says it is true.

When you add any two even numbers, your answer is always even.
C. Gabriel
D. Chris
2+2=4 4+2=6
2+4=6 4+4=8 + =
2+6=8 4+6=10
So Chris says it is true.
So Gabriel says it is true.

1. Which answer is more meaningful to you?

2. Which answer is more like the one that you would have given?
3. Which answer do you think will receive the highest mark from the teacher?
The results for the multiple-choice question can be seen Table 2.

Student Results for Multiple-Choice Questions (I, II, III)


Student: 11 2 7 16 17 9 12 19 15 1 4 8 10 13 14 18 6 3 5 F N E V
I: N N N N N N E E E E E E E E E E E E E 0 32 68 0
II: N N N N E E F N E E E E E E E E E E V 5 26 63 5
III: F N N E N V F E F N N N N N N N E V F 21 52 15 11

Note. I = most meaningful answer; II = personal choice; III = highest mark; F = formal; N = narrative; E = empirical;
V = visual.

I. Which answer is more meaningful to you? The students had four different proofs to select
from: formal proof (A), narrative proof (B), empirical proof (C), and visual proof (D). None of the
students considered the visual or the formal proof to be the most meaningful. When the researcher
asked student 8 to explain why he found examples more meaningful and easier to follow than a
narrative the student said: “Words are confusing. Adding numbers is more meaningful.” Overall,
the students’ most popular choice was the empirical proof (13 students), and their second most
popular choice was the narrative proof (6 students). It is interesting to note that the formal proof
was considered to be the most complicated and difficult because as student 17 argued: “Adding x
and y is confusing.” In addition, they found the visual proof to be too simple and unsophisticated
to be considered a mathematically valid answer, and they seemed to get confused by the numerous
words that make up the narrative proof. Therefore, the use of specific examples in the empirical
proof is considered to be the easiest to comprehend. Student 5 said: “Answer C [empirical] is
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the most meaningful because I understood it easier and it allowed me to think faster. I can see
the numbers and check if they are odd or even. It’s easier to follow.” Additionally, most students
believed that the six examples of the empirical proof were enough to prove and to guarantee
the generic validity of a mathematical conjecture. In conclusion, it appears that most students in
this study were unable to think in broad terms and failed to recognize the general validity that
characterizes a mathematical proof.
II. Which answer is more like the one that you would have given? The students’ most
popular response to this question is the same with the one given in the previous question; that is,
the empirical proof. Specifically, 12 students claimed that the empirical answer (option C) is the
one that they would have constructed themselves, if they had to solve the same problem. Next
came option B (narrative proof with 5 students), and last options A and D (formal and visual
proofs with 1 student each). Specifically, for questions I and II, four students selected narrative
proofs as their common answer, and 10 students explained that empirical proofs make more
sense and therefore are the proofs they would have given themselves. Student 2, who selected
the narrative answer for questions I and II, argued that: “I would have used words in my answer
because I know how to write words and I can explain something when I use them. I would like
mathematics more if I could use more words and didn’t have to use numbers all the time.”
At this point, it is interesting to compare the above results with the corresponding findings of the
Healy and Hoyles (1998b) investigation. Overall, their results show that “students are significantly
more likely to select empirical arguments for their own approach than to receive the best mark”
(p. 20). Specifically, for the algebraic question (A1) they reported that the second most popular
choice behind exhaustive proofs (29%) was empirical proofs (24%). Additionally, for the same
question they reported “that students most frequently chose arguments presented in prose-form
(A 1: exhaustive and narrative forms combined account for 46% of choices)” (Healy & Hoyles,
1998b, p. 20). Finally, Healy and Hoyles (1998a, §2, ¶1) reported that “when trying to prove
the familiar conjecture—that the sum of two odd numbers is always even—40% of students
used some deductive reasoning.” In our study, the most popular choice was empirical proofs
(63%), a result that agrees with the general results of the aforementioned British investigation.
Additionally, from the above results it is evident that students appreciate and prefer to function
in the domain of the specific and the concrete, rather than in a world of general and abstract
proof concepts. However, though students in the UK study seemed to appreciate answers that
convince and explain, most of the subjects in our study were content with a correct solution to

the problem. Our subjects’ unfamiliarity with proving and their preference for empirical answers
was accurately explained by Healy and Hoyles (1998a, §6, ¶1), who stated that “students with
little or no sense of proof . . . were more likely to choose empirical arguments.”
III. Which answer do you think will receive the highest mark from the teacher? The above
question produced very interesting responses from the students. Specifically, students 5 and 4
argued the following:
Student 5: Answer A [formal] would get the best mark because it is the most difficult answer so it
deserves the highest mark. You have to be very smart to give an answer like that.
Student 4: If a student gave answer D [visual] then the teacher would know that he copied it because it
doesn’t explain anything. Answer B would get the highest mark because the student says and explains
everything, so that means that he thought everything by himself.
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Most students in this study agreed with the reasoning that student 4 demonstrated above. Ac-
cording to the majority of students, the proof that would be awarded with the highest mark
by the teacher is the narrative proof. Specifically, 10 students considered narrative proofs to
have the greatest educational value for their teachers. These were followed by formal proofs
(4 students), empirical proofs (3 students), and visual proofs (2 students). Most students agreed
that their teacher would assign the highest mark to the answer that not only justified a mathe-
matical statement but also explained the correctness of that statement. Thus, they believed that
narrative proofs fulfill both requirements, because as student 2 argued,
Even though all four types of answers will get a high mark if they are correct, the narrative answer will
probably get the highest mark because it provides the best description of how to solve the problem
and if a student can explain this process that means that not only has he understood it, but also that
he has thought it through and has solved it by himself.

When we compared the results for questions II and III (i.e., the response that the students would
give as their own and the answer that they believed would receive the highest mark), we observed
that 15 students believed that their answer would not get the highest mark from their teacher. It
is interesting that students in this study preferred to select answers they felt “comfortable” with
(i.e., empirical proofs), even though they had more sophisticated answers to choose from. This
suggests that educators should not be adamant about the exclusive use of formal proofs in the
classroom and should realize students’ preferences. This was further supported by the comparison
of the results for questions I and II: most students in this investigation (14 out of 19) had as a
personal choice the answer that was the most meaningful to them. Additionally, most students
(10 out of 19) were convinced that narrative proofs held the greatest educational value to their
educators. This indicates that the students in our study valued the answers that explain (narrative
proofs) more than the answers that use formal mathematical language (formal proofs). However,
it is important to point out that regardless of the fact that they valued proofs that explain, they still
chose empirical proofs as the answer they would have given as their own. This could be explained
by the fact that these students do mathematics in a curriculum that does not include distinct
process standards. On the topic of curriculum influences, Healy and Hoyles (1998a, §5, ¶2)
reported that “school and curriculum were also found to be influential” and argued that in
situations where the curriculum engaged students in proof related activities “this fertile ground
is not exploited to introduce mathematical proof and face students with the challenge of setting
out a mathematical argument in a coherent and logical manner” (§11, ¶4).

The corresponding results of the Healy and Hoyles (1998b) study clearly show that because
those students are expected to participate in reasoning and proving tasks according to their
national curriculum, they seem to acknowledge that a formal proof is considered to be the most
valid and mathematically accurate method to justify a mathematic conjecture. At the same time,
the results showed that British students were unable to distinguish between a correct and an
incorrect formal proof (22% and 41%, respectively). Therefore, the difference between the two
studies may be due to the fact that students in this investigation were unfamiliar with the concepts
of reasoning and proof. For this reason, they ended up choosing the form of proof that is the easiest
to understand (i.e., narrative proofs), which in the Healy and Hoyles (1998b) investigation was
the second choice (18%). In conclusion, most students in both studies preferred empirical proofs
as their form of answer when constructing a proof. However, the difference was that the British
students have been taught that formal proofs are considered to be the most credible, whereas
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the Greek students believed that proofs that explain should be considered the most valuable and
mathematically sound.

Questions 3, 4, 5

Question 3: A rule is used to determine the number of blocks in each level of the figure below.
The table shows the number of blocks that are in each level of the figure. How many blocks will
be needed to make level 4? (see Figure 1)
Question 4: How many blocks will be needed to make level 10? How do you know? Write a
rule to show how many blocks are needed to make any level.
Question 5: Is your rule valid for all similar figures? Are you certain that your rule will stand
regardless how big the figure gets?
In questions 3 and 4 the students had to discover, with the help of the pyramid-like figure and
the chart, the relationship that connects the number of each level of the pyramid and the total
number of blocks that can be found in every corresponding level. Question 4 is an extension of
question 3 and therefore the students’ answers for both questions were combined and analyzed
as one complete answer to the specific algebraic problem. Specifically, the students had to find
the number of blocks in the 4th level (question 3), discover the rule that explains the relationship
between the total number of blocks and the level of the pyramid, and then apply the rule they had

FIGURE 1 Number of blocks needed in each level. (Adapted from NCTM, 2005, p. 73)

discovered to the 10th level (question 4) of the pyramid. Finally, they were asked to formulate
a general rule (question 5) for finding the total number of blocks at any given level in such a
pyramid (i.e., with k = a2, where k is the number of blocks and a represents the number of levels).
Correctness of solution. The algebraic problem of our study produced a variety of in-
teresting student responses. In the interview phase we asked the subjects to explain how they
constructed their solution, justify their reasoning, and demonstrate their understanding of a general
mathematical rule. Students 17, 18, and 19 discussed the following:
Student 17: I counted the blocks in the pyramid. There are 16 blocks.
Student 18: I used the figure to count the 16 blocks too.
Student 19: I know from school that if I want to find the area of a shape I have to multiply the length
with the width. So I counted the length [4 blocks] and the width [4 blocks] and multiplied the two
numbers. So 4 ∗ 4 = 16. This is easier than counting all the blocks.
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Teacher: How many blocks are there in the 10th level?

Student 17 had written in the questionnaire the following:

4 = 16
5 = 20
8 = 32
10 = 40 there are 40 blocks.
Teacher: How did you find 40?
Student 17: In the beginning I counted the blocks. Then I thought it would be better to multiply. So I
multiplied the number of the level [10] with the number of the sides that the base has [4]. Therefore
in the tenth level we will have 10 blocks times 4 sides equals 40.
Student 19: Again I used the area to find the number of the blocks. The 10th level will have 10 blocks
at each side because the base is a square. Therefore 10 ∗ 10 = 100 blocks.
I see you have found different results. Who do you think is correct?
Student 17: I think there are 40 blocks in the 10th level. [Student 17 then repeated his initial syllogism
and did not want to comment on the answer that 19 had provided. He just said that his answer was
correct and avoided saying that 19 was incorrect.]
Student 18: I agree with 17. I think 19 is incorrect because area is an operation . . . [left the sentence
incomplete]. We need to count the blocks and not the area in the shape.
Student 19: She seemed more confident about her solution but was content on repeating her solution.
She really didn’t know how to or want to prove to her classmates that she was correct. (student 17 =
Nick; student 18 = Maria; student 19 = Anne)

In the end they simply chose to stick with their own solutions. They were unable to convince each
Teacher: If the pyramid had 1000 levels. How would you find the number of blocks?
Students 17, 18: [Both agree with 1000 ∗ 4].
Student 19: 1000 ∗ 1000.
Teacher: Is there a general rule for any given level?
Student 18: If you don’t know multiplication you can use the given figure to count the blocks. If you
know how to multiply, then you times the number of the blocks that you count on one side of the base
with 4.
Student 19: You calculate the area of the base of the pyramid so length ∗ width. Is your rule valid for
any given pyramid, no matter how big or small it may be?
Students 17, 18, 19: Yes. (Nick, Maria, Ann)

Before we discuss in detail the results about the correctness of the proof, it is interesting
to comment on the inability of the above students to engage in a mathematical discussion in
order to try to convince each other about the correctness of their answer. The students seemed
uncomfortable in criticizing their classmates’ responses and preferred to repeat their initial
answers. Even in this situation where there were different answers the students seemed to ignore
this fact and concentrated on their personal responses. The students avoided engaging in a
discussion even though we were sitting in a circle. The researcher was always at the center of
their attention regardless of his effort to get them to interact. This failure to establish constructive
communication between the students raises the question of whether the students’ arguments
could be accepted as proofs in a school setting. Stylianides (2007b) commented on this point
elaborately by arguing that “an argument that could count as proof in a classroom should be
accepted as proof by the community—and, thus, it should be convincing to the students” (p. 12).
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In addition, he cautioned that “the convincing power of an argument is by itself not enough to
capture the social dimension of proof in school settings” (Stylianides, 2007b, p. 12) and warned
about the danger of “unqualified arguments (such as empirical arguments)” to “be elevated to the
status of proof” (Stylianides, 2007b, p. 13). Although we did not expect complete and formal
mathematical discussions and proofs from our subjects, we were hoping that the students would
have performed better in the social aspects of proof during the interview phase. Influences from
a mathematics curriculum that is predominately traditional and teacher centered as well as the
format and the time limit of the interview phase could explain to some extent the students’ lack
of willingness or capacity to present and discuss their answers in public.
The results in the algebraic question (Table 3) showed that although all of the students re-
sponded with some sort of justification, none demonstrated arguments based on formal mathemat-
ical language. Specifically, seven students provided a correct answer with sufficient justification.
Of the remaining 12 students, 10 students answered correctly but provided inadequate justifi-
cations, and two students gave the wrong answer but tried to a certain degree to justify their
reasoning. It is noteworthy that if we do not take into account the form of justification, then 17
students responded correctly to questions 3 and 4. If we compare this result to the students’ per-
formances in the first geometric question with a total of seven correct answers, it is evident that the
geometric problem posed a greater challenge to the students. The above observation is consistent
with the Healy and Hoyles (1998b) results where “Students’ performance is considerably better
in algebra than in geometry in both constructing and evaluating proofs” (p. 3).
Overall, student performance confirms the difficulties that most students have when asked to
justify a mathematical conjecture. However, it appears that students perform better in algebra
than they do in geometry, at least in our investigation. Furthermore, if we consider that these
students are not systematically taught logical reasoning and mathematical proof, then the number

Results for Questions 3 and 4

Student: 17 18 1 5 11 14 15 4 2 6 13 19 3 12 9 7 8 10 16

Note. W = incorrect answer; C = correct answer; N = no justification; I = insufficient justification; S = sufficient

justification; F = formal proof.

of seven students who answered correctly and substantiated their reasoning in an adequate way
indicates that even young students have the ability to reason logically in different mathematical
contexts and that with the appropriate guidance this ability can be improved and cultivated in
more students. Moreover, all of the subjects, regardless of the correctness of their answer, sought
to explain how they solved the specific problem.
Form of proof. In regards to the forms of reasoning and proof that were demonstrated, no
student used formal mathematical language. However, all of the students attempted to justify
their arguments and to convince others about their correctness. Out of the 19 students, four
students used empirical reasoning in the algebraic problem. These students used the picture in
the questionnaire to count the number of blocks in the fourth level and failed to justify their
calculations. Two students developed exhaustive reasoning (i.e., they tried to find the solution
for all of the levels until they reached the desired result). Finally, the seven students with the
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correct and adequate justification and the remaining six students from the category of “the correct
answer with the incomplete justification” (a total of 13 students) developed narrative reasoning.
Specifically, the students observed that the base of the pyramid was a square and that depending
on the number of the level, there was a corresponding number of blocks at each side of the base
(i.e., the third level will have a square base with sides that are three squares long). Student 19
discovered that in order to calculate the number of blocks found in any level it is sufficient to
“find the area, to multiply the length by the width of the square base.” She also stressed that “it is
easier to calculate the total number of blocks this way because it would take too long to count the
blocks with the help of the picture.” In these cases, it was observed that the students used simple
forms of reasoning (exhaustive and empirical) in order to support their arguments. However,
the above syllogisms were arranged in a logical way and were supported with adequate oral
Conclusions on Questions 3, 4, and 5. In contrast to the geometric problem where we
had only seven correct answers, the students performed much better in the algebraic problem,
where 17 out of the 19 students provided the correct answer. These results indicate that in the
context of this investigation, most students seem to have achieved higher attainment levels of
algebraic concepts as opposed to geometric concepts. It is important to point out that both the
algebraic and geometric concepts that were incorporated in the questionnaire were chosen because
they were included in their curriculum and were familiar to them. The aforementioned facility
that the students demonstrated in the manipulation of numbers enabled them to not only find
the correct answer to the problem but also to develop more sophisticated forms of reasoning
skills. Specifically, the most popular forms of logical reasoning in the algebraic problem were
the narrative justifications, whereas in the geometric problem where there were more incorrect
answers; most students used simple forms of empirical reasoning. Overall, one can argue that
the students’ capacities to think logically, to argue, to explain, and to justify their reasonings
improved in mathematical contexts where they possessed a solid knowledge base. The fact that
there seems to be an analogous relationship between content knowledge and correctness of proof,
and between content knowledge and more effective reasoning skills suggests that mathematics
education should not only be concerned about the correct solution of mathematical problems
by the students. Additionally, they should strive to foster mathematical reasoning and proving
in ways that will enable them to argue logically and to justify effectively. Healy and Hoyles
highlighted this need by stating that though general mathematical attainment has an influence on

Comparison of Results in the Geometric and Algebraic Questions

Student: 17 18 1 5 11 14 15 4 2 6 13 19 3 12 9 7 8 10 16

Note. W = incorrect answer; C = correct answer; N = no justification; I = insufficient justification; S = sufficient

justification; F = formal proof.

students’ performance in proof-related tasks, it is evident “that more challenge and more attention
to proving could enhance performance” (Healy & Hoyles, 1998a, ¶5).
Finally, in regards to the fifth question, 17 students claimed that they were certain that their
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answers were correct and argued that the rules they had formulated had generic value. The above
certainty in the students’ answers was not based on the fact that they recognized the need for
the construction of a generic proof and the formulation of a corresponding mathematical rule but
seemed to stem from the fact that the students were given the opportunities to reason logically
and to justify the validity of their answers without the usual in-class pressing time limits of a
regular mathematics lesson. Overall, the luxury of having more time to think before they had to
answer appeared to strengthen students confidence about the correctness of the solution they had

Comparing Algebra to Geometry

In Table 4 we can see the comparison of student responses that were given in the geometric
(question 1) and the algebraic (questions 3 and 4) problems.
The above comparison highlights how mathematical context influences the effectiveness of
students’ reasoning skills and their abilities to construct correct solutions to problems. Out of
19 students, only one student (student 16) provided a correct answer with sufficient justification
for both problems, and only seven students answered correctly both questions. In total, 11
students provided a correct answer with sufficient justification for one of the two questions, and
17 students produced a correct answer for one question if we do not take into account the form of
their justification. The fact that different students performed well in different contexts underlines
how mathematical context influences student performance. Students who performed well in
geometry were unsuccessful in algebra and vice versa. The dispersion of the results indicates
that young minds can reason effectively in different mathematical contexts. Therefore, it would
be interesting to further investigate the correlation between knowledge prowess and forms of
mathematical reasoning demonstrated by young students.


Researchers “agree that proof must be central to mathematics teaching at all grades” (Ball, Hoyles,
Jahnke, & Movshovitz-Hadar, 2002, p. 907) and point out the importance of knowing “more about
the difficulties pupils encounter when they are confronted with proof and the challenges faced
by teachers who seek to make argumentation central to the mathematics classroom” (Ball et al.,

2002, pp. 1–2). The fact that mathematical proof is difficult and challenging for students of all
grade levels constitutes the main source of reflection and concern in regards to whether it is
attainable to teach mathematical proof at all levels of education. Equally challenging is the quest
of narrowing down and selecting which instructional approaches and methods are considered to
be the most suitable and effective to sustain this specific educational practice.
The present investigation had set as a fundamental goal to explore and highlight reasoning and
proving skills demonstrated by Grade 6 students in a public elementary school in Greece. The
results confirm the difficulties that students face when asked to justify a mathematical sentence.
However, the questionnaire and the interviews also produced useful findings about the capacity
that young students have to reason logically and to use different elements of mathematical proof;
especially, if we take into consideration the fact that the subjects had never been instructed in
reasoning and proving in the context of their mathematics education. Specifically, it was encour-
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aging to observe young students’ abilities to utilize some of the features of mathematical proof
(i.e., explanation, communication) in order to justify a mathematical conjecture. Furthermore,
it was ascertained that students’ reasoning skills improved when they demonstrated better un-
derstanding about specific mathematical concepts. Students who constructed correct solutions
usually demonstrated effective reasoning skills. In addition, most students showed a preference
for narrative and empirical justifications when they were asked to construct an algebraic or a
geometric proof. Even though the students did not rely on formal mathematical language in their
arguments, something that was expected, a significant number of students were able to reason
logically in order to explain why the solution they had provided was correct. Another observation
worth noting is that the students performed better in the familiar algebraic problem than in the
familiar geometric problem. Specifically, most students failed to use familiar geometric concepts
in their attempt to construct a solution to the first question. The specific result contradicts our
initial expectations about performance, especially those expressed by the students’ homeroom
teacher. This reveals an additional role for reasoning and proving activities in the classroom:
assessment. To some extent our investigation uncovered the homeroom teacher’s misconception
about his students’ knowledge and skills. Therefore, we believe that it is important to inves-
tigate not only how reasoning and proof can help students understand mathematical concepts
but also how these processes can assist teachers in assessing the learning that takes place in
the classroom. An additional point of interest worth further investigation is that in situations
where students had constructed different proofs they were unable to convince their classmates
about the correctness of their answer. Stylianides (2007b) argued that proofs in the classroom
must be convincing and accepted as proofs by the school community. Therefore, the above
observation of the students’ failure to convince draws attention to the social aspect of proof
and generates a need to further investigate the social characteristics of proof for the elementary
Undoubtedly, research that has examined the educational role of reasoning and proof has
highlighted elementary and secondary students’ difficulties to demonstrate deductive reasoning
skills in order to prove a mathematical conjecture. It is evident that formal proofs include elements
that challenge students. However, research shows that elementary students can be effective with
activities that include some of the elements of mathematical proof. Thus, most researchers agree
that the processes of reasoning and proving are of great didactic and learning value in all levels
of education. For this reason, they advocate, and we agree, reasoning and proving to be integral
elements of every contemporary mathematics curriculum.


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