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On the inuence of theory on research in mathematics education:

the case of teaching and learning limits of functions
Christer Bergsten
Accepted: 1 March 2008 / Published online: 18 March 2008
FIZ Karlsruhe 2008
Abstract After an introduction on approaches, research
frameworks and theories in mathematics education
research, three didactical research studies on limits of
functions with different research frameworks are analysed
and compared with respect to their theoretical perspectives.
It is shown how a chosen research framework denes the
world in which the research lives, pointing to the difcult
but necessary task to compare research results within a
common eld of study but conducted within different
1 Introduction
It is generally acknowledged that results from didactical
research, as any other research on human behaviour in
social settings, depends heavily on the underlying basic
assumptions, general approach, and theories and methods
used. For example, Artigue, Batanero and Kent (2007) state
that favouring certain approaches shapes the problematics
and methodology of the research, and through these the
kind of results that one can assess and the way they will be
expressed (p. 1030). One may thus ask, for a particular
study, what factors inuence the choice of a specic
research framework, and what consequences this choice
entails. Such considerations seem crucial when evaluating
not only the validity of the research design but also the
scope and consequences of the specic research results, for
example to be able to judge its relevance for different
educational contexts. They may also be useful considering
the diversity of theoretical tools and frameworks in present
day mathematics education. According to Silver and Herbst
(2007, p. 43), the increase of this diversity during the last
decades has been caused by the turn away from quantita-
tive toward qualitative research methods, as well as new
methods for experimental research. Other arguments given
to account for this diversity are the diverging, epistemo-
logical perspectives about what constitutes mathematical
knowledge and the strong inuence of cultural, social,
and political forces on mathematics education (Sriraman
and English 2005, p. 452). Indeed, it was concluded in
Sierpinska and Lerman (1996) that for mathematics
educators, epistemologies of mathematics and assumptions
about the epistemic subject cannot be divorced (p. 868),
and they also noted at that time that There is much debate
within the international community of mathematics edu-
cators about theoretical approaches and their underlying
epistemological issues (p. 867).
One way to shed light on how frameworks, theoretical
tools and methods shape the design and product of didac-
tical research is to compare different kinds of studies on the
same or similar educational phenomena with regard to
these dimensions. Such comparisons may also have other
more pragmatic objectives besides the academic quest for
understanding the roles of different components in a
research process, such as facilitating an integration or a
network of the outcomes of the studies to contribute to a
progression of our didactical knowledge of these phe-
nomena. Taking isolated research results at face value,
without relating them to the conditions and constraints of
the research processes behind them, provides no criteria or
bases for relating them to other seemingly contradictory or
similar results, and is therefore of limited value in the
C. Bergsten (&)
Department of Mathematics,
Linkopings Universitet,
58183 Linkoping, Sweden
1 3
ZDM Mathematics Education (2008) 40:189199
DOI 10.1007/s11858-008-0083-2
construction of a coherent knowledge base in an educa-
tional science.
After a short introduction on research frameworks and
the concept and role of theory in mathematics education,
this paper then goes into more detail looking at didactical
research on a specic mathematical notion, limits of
functions, often referred to as difcult for students to
learn or understand (Mamona-Downs 2001). I will give a
short overview of some approaches and perspectives used
in educational research on limits, and then compare more
closely three specic studies, representing different
research frameworks, with a focus on their theoretical
underpinnings and claims. In doing this, I will consider the
following question: How does a theoretical basis adopted
for a study inuence the nature of the purpose, questions,
methods, evidence, conclusions, and implications of the
study? A short remark on terminology is needed here. In
the next section, I will elaborate on the terms approaches
to research and research frameworks. However, in the
formulation of the question above, the term theoretical
basis is used to designate the overall purposive position-
ing of the research, including its approach and research
framework (as described in the next section). The com-
parison between the three studies also serves as a case
study and a method to investigate the question above, using
the analytical tools presented in the next section. The aim
of this enterprise is twofoldto better understand the
consequences of the adoption of a specic theoretical basis
for a research study, and to provide a basis for discussing
how such a comparison can facilitate an integration or a
network of the outcomes of the studies, in order to con-
tribute to a progression of our didactical knowledge of
these phenomena.
2 Research frameworks and theories
In Lester (2005) reasons are given for why educational
research needs to be pursued within a scaffolding frame-
work. A framework is here seen as a basic structure of the
ideas (i.e. abstractions and relationships) that serve as the
basis for a phenomenon that is to be investigated (p. 458),
representing its relevant features as determined by the
adopted research perspective, and serving as a viewpoint to
conceptualise and guide the research. A research frame-
work thus provides a structure for conceptualising and
designing research studies, including the nature of
research questions and concepts used and how to make
sense of data, allowing to transcend common sense (p.
According to Eisenhart (1991) three kinds of research
frameworks can be identied, that is a theoretical, a
practical, and a conceptual framework. In relation to
theoretical frameworks, Lester (2005) argues that although
making the choice of conforming to a particular theory has
the advantages of facilitating communication, encourag-
ing systematic research programs, and demonstrating
progress (p. 459), it also has serious shortcomings, such
as prompting explanations by decree rather than evidence,
making data travel to serve the theory, offering weak
links to everyday practice, and limiting validation by tri-
angulation. Practical frameworks, based on accumulated
experiences and what works, may suffer from limita-
tions caused by norms and narrow insider perspectives. The
focus of a conceptual framework is more on justication
than on explanation but still based on previous research.
Instead of relying on one particular overarching theory as
in the case of a theoretical framework, it is built from an
array of current and possibly far-ranging sources, and can
be based on different theories and various aspects of
practitioner knowledge, depending on what the researcher
can argue will be relevant and important to address about a
research problem (Lester 2005, p. 460). The validity for
the chosen framework is context dependent, which is its
strength considering the practical implications of the
research. Lester thus pragmatically argues with an
emphasis on justication, the purpose of research to answer
the why questions, that we should focus our efforts on
using smaller, more focused theories and models of
teaching, learning and development (p. 460).
The notion of a conceptual research framework relates
to the idea of a networking strategy for dealing with the
increased diversity of theories within mathematics educa-
tion (Bikner-Ahsbahs and Prediger 2006). In a similar vein,
when discussing four broad theoretical perspectives, Cobb
(2007) uses a bricolage metaphor: rather than adhering to
one theoretical perspective, we act as bricoleurs by
adopting ideas from a range of theoretical resources (p.
29; cf. Gravemeijer 1994, p. 447). Since the development
of such perspectives has been initiated by other purposes
than those driving mathematics education research, they
may serve as sources of ideas that we can modify for our
purposes as mathematics educators (Cobb 2007, p. 29). In
line with this view, the researcher should not only make
explicit the choice of theoretical frames used but also the
justication for this choice.
Meanings and different uses of the word theory have
been discussed for example in Mason and Waywood
(1996) and Silver and Herbst (2007). Niss (2007a, b) notes
that though the notion of theory is essential for mathe-
matics education research, and often used, a denition of
the key term theory is seldom or never explicitly given. He
goes on to offer such a description of this notion, stating
that a theory is an organised network of concepts and
claims about a domain, where the concepts are linked in a
connected hierarchy and claims are either basic hypotheses
190 C. Bergsten
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taken as fundamental, or obtained from these by means of
formal or material derivation. To be a theory this network
is also required to be stable, coherent, and consistent.
Niss (2007a, b) separates the purpose of using theory
and its role in research. In the former category he lists
explanation, prediction, guidance for action or behaviour, a
structured set of lenses to study phenomena, a safeguard
against unscientic approaches, and protection against
attacks from sceptics in other disciplines. Concerning the
role of theory he mentions providing an overarching
framework, organising observations/interpretations of
related phenomena into a coherent whole, terminology, and
research methodology. He also adds that the inclusion of
theory in general is needed for publication.
Similar points are raised in Silver and Herbst (2007),
who view the different roles of theory as mediators of
connections between the vertices of what they call the
scholarship triangle (see Fig. 1). Within each of these
connections, Silver and Herbst describe several different
roles that theory could play. For example, for the link
between research and problems, one of the roles that theory
serves is as the means to transform a commonsensical
problem into a researchable problem (p. 50).
Mathematics education is characterised by its double
nature (Niss 1999), with both a descriptive purpose, aimed
at increased understanding of the phenomena studied, and a
normative purpose, aimed at developing instructional
design. In discussing the role of theory in research, the
dynamic model presented in Lester (2005) takes this dou-
ble nature into account (see Fig. 2). The primary outcome
of research may be to increase understanding of a specic
phenomenon or to improve practice, a goal pursued along
different possible pathways of pure, basic, applied, or
developmental research. Such outcome then can serve as
starting point for a new research process. One note to make
is that it is the dynamics of this cycle that may establish
connections between understandings and products.
A research question in education often has its origin in a
commonsensical problem, that is a general reection
expressed in everyday language that, for example, some
mathematical concept is difcult to understand for some
group of students, or that they often make a certain kind of
mistake on specic types of problems (cf. Prediger in this
issue). The problem identied may then be approached
from different angles or perspectives in order to describe it
for research purposes and formulate a research question.
The decision on what approach to apply rests not only on
issues such as the character of the problem and the
empirical context, or the aim of the research in terms of for
example generality and practical applicability of results.
Critical are also the backgrounds, interests, and theoretical
orientations of the researchers, including their explicit or
implicit assumptions on mathematical knowledge and
learning in educational settings.
One may identify at least three different general
approaches used in research on mathematics education: an
epistemological, a cognitive, and a social approach. In an
epistemological approach, focus is on the structure and use
of mathematical knowledge and its diffusion in educational
institutions. Within the cognitive approach the research
interest is focused on the mental structures and thinking
processes involved in learning, understanding and doing
mathematics, including meta-cognitive dimensions. Taking
the social and situational context of the learner into
account, for example a classroom perspective, or involving
more broad social and cultural factors on mathematics
education, a social approach is used. While acknowledging
the fact that, for example, a study with an epistemological
approach needs to consider social and cultural dimensions
of knowledge, or that an epistemological analysis of the
object of learning may be used within a cognitive
approach, this distinction is made here to identify the main
approach or focus/interest of the study. The approach
chosen largely determines in which domains descriptions
Research Practices
Fig. 1 The scholarship triangle (Silver and Herbst 2007, p. 44)
Pure, Use- Pure,
applied inspired,
research & basic
development research
Existing understanding
Existing products
Fig. 2 A dynamic model of educational research (Lester 2005, p.
On the inuence of theory on research in mathematics education 191
1 3
and explanations of observed educational phenomena are
sought. What is considered a problem within one approach
may be viewed as a symptom of another kind of problem
within another approach. The kind of theoretical basis to
frame the study is also suggested but not implied by the
approach taken.
Sierpinska and Lerman (1996), while discussing epis-
temologies in mathematics education, use the terms
view and approach about the main such epistemolo-
gies they identify: constructivism, socio-cultural views,
interactionist views, an anthropological approach, and
approaches based on epistemologies of meaning. Recently,
in the same vein, Artigue et al. (2007) discuss cognitive,
epistemological, and more global approaches used in
research on post-secondary level mathematics education.
While using similar categories, the notion of approach
presented above is to be understood as a more informal
inclination by the researcher to interpret an observed
commonsensical problem, be it more or less biased in the
researchers main theoretical orientation or interests.
When coping with the diversity of theoretical perspec-
tives used in mathematics education, Cobb (2007) suggests
to focus on types of questions asked, the nature of the
phenomena under study, and the forms of knowledge
produced rather than trying to establish direct links
between theory and instructional practice. He compares
four broad theoretical perspectives used in mathematics
education research, experimental psychology, cognitive
psychology, sociocultural theory, and distributed cognition.
As a basis for contrasting these perspectives Cobb sets up
two criteria: how each perspective characterizes individu-
als and the potential of each to contribute to our
understanding of learning processes and the means of
supporting their realization (p. 28). He stresses how the
choice of these criteria is relative to a view of mathematics
education as a design science and how their use involves
interpretation and judgement (p. 28). The cognitive and
social approaches discussed above are related to at least the
last three of these four perspectives, making the outcome of
Cobbs contrasting comparisons, expressed in terms of
characterization of the individual, usefulness, and limita-
tions (see p. 28, Table 1.1), useful also for the comparisons
of individual studies based on these approaches. However,
epistemologically oriented theoretical perspectives, such as
the theory of didactical situations or the anthropological
theory of didactics (see Bosch and Gascon 2006), are not
discussed by Cobb.
In the following, I will be using the terms research
framework, theoretical framework, and conceptual
framework in line with Eisenhart (1991) and Lester
(2005), and the term approach to refer to one of the
categories epistemological, cognitive, and social, as in the
discussion above.
3 Research on the mathematical notion of limit
Overviews of research on limits are found in Cornu (1991)
and in Harel and Trgalova (1996). Cognitive approaches
have dominated this research, identifying the critical roles
played by conceptions of innity, quantication, visuali-
zation, concept images, the dialectic between processes and
objects, and between intuition and formalism, conceptual
metaphors and image schemata, and students beliefs about
mathematics and their role as learners. Epistemological
approaches have discussed historicalphilosophical aspects
of the mathematical ideas involved in the limit concept
(e.g. Burn 2005), epistemological obstacles (e.g. Cornu
1991), or contrasted mathematical and didactical organi-
sations of knowledge observed in classrooms (e.g. Barbe
et al. 2005). Some examples given below show how dif-
ferent combinations of main purposes, approaches, and
research frameworks are used in recent research.
Juter (2006) applies a cognitive approach, using a con-
ceptual framework with a focus on concept images and the
three worlds of Tall (2004) to investigate Swedish uni-
versity students understanding of limits. Her study
conrms the image of limits as a problematic area, but that
students often tend to overestimate their own abilities as
compared to their achievements. While the aim of Juters
study was improved understanding, in terms of Fig. 2, the
goal for Przenioslo (2005) was improved products for
introducing the limit concept. Based on a similar approach
as Juter, using a conceptual framework, she outlines an
instructional design based on a didactical tool to enable
students to develop conceptions that are closer and closer
to the meaning of the concept of limit of a sequence (p.
90). By taking the characteristics of the object of knowl-
edge for granted, this study is not classied as adopting an
epistemological approach. Mamona-Downs (2001) also
aims at developing a teaching/learning practice by making
tacit intuitive views visible and conscious, applying a
cognitive approach paired with an epistemological analysis
of the pre-given mathematical denition of the concept of
limit. Bergsten (2006) applies an epistemological approach
and a theoretical framework to analyse university students
work on limit tasks with a focus on understanding the role
of algebra in their mathematical reasoning. In the next
section, three studies are described in more detail in order
to discuss the consequences of using particular approaches
and research frameworks.
To reect that cognitive approaches dominate the
research on the specic content area of limits of functions,
two such studies were chosen but with different kinds of
research frameworks, that is a theoretical and a conceptual
framework. To contrast approaches, a study with an episte-
mological approach was also included in the analysis, using a
theoretical framework. There are thus two studies with the
192 C. Bergsten
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same approach but different kinds of research frameworks,
while two differ in approaches but are both conducted within
a theoretical framework. After presenting my interpretation
of these studies, a comparison between them is made struc-
tured by the research question stated in the Sect. 1, and using
the analytical tools discussed in the previous section.
3.1 Cognitive schemas
An example of a cognitive approach is found in Cottrill
et al. (1996), where the theoretical framework used is
explicitly stated in the paper as the APOS theory, based on
Piagets constructivism. The focus is on students under-
standing of the limit concept, and after acknowledging
student difculties to understand this concept, the stated
purpose is to apply our theoretical perspective, our own
mathematical knowledge, and our analyses of observations
of students studying limits to develop a description, or
genetic decomposition, of how the limit concept can be
learned (p. 167). This tool is based on the APOS theory,
in particular how it treats the reconciliation of the dichot-
omy between dynamic or process conceptions of limits
and static or formal conceptions (pp. 167168). The
perspective is based on the following statement about
mathematical knowledge (p. 171):
Mathematical knowledge is an individuals tendency
to respond, in a social context, to a perceived problem
situation by constructing, re-constructing, and organ-
ising, in her or his mind, mathematical processes and
objects with which to deal with the situation.
The acronym APOS designates the sequence action-
process-object-schema and by this focus the theory con-
siders how learners, when reecting on actions on
(mathematical) objects, come into control of the processes
involved in the transformation of objects. By internaliza-
tion these processes can be encapsulated into new objects.
This triad establishes a mental schema, which may be used
as a basis for a new action sequence. The APOS theory thus
depicts a mechanism that may be envisioned as a spiral-
ling of action, process, and object within expanding
schemas (p. 173).
The adopted theoretical basis for this study is mirrored
in the terminology used, such as the frequent terms con-
struct and schema, as in the coordinated process schema
is difcult in itself and not every student can construct it
immediately (p. 174). The conclusion is an instruc-
tional design focusing on getting students to make
specic mental constructions (p. 169) of importance for
understanding the limit concept. The research method is a
cyclic process, where a genetic decomposition is developed
by an epistemological analysis. This way the research
approach also has a strong epistemological component
interacting with the cognitive approach. The genetic
decomposition then forms the basis of an instructional
design that is implemented. After extensive observation
and student interviews a renewed cycle is performed,
which may cause changes in the decomposition and the
design, and ultimately also in the theory.
The nal genetic decomposition described consists of
seven steps (see pp. 177178), which were materialised in
the instructional design. Evidence for students construc-
tions targeted in the different steps of the decomposition is
provided by analyses of interview protocols. Some con-
clusions about concept development are made, indicating
that a dynamic conception of limit is much more com-
plicated than a process that is captured by the interiorization
of an action (p. 190). A strong such conception is needed
to move to a formal conception of limit, which is not static
but instead is a very complex schema with important
dynamic aspects and requires students to have constructed
strong conceptions of quantication (p. 190).
3.2 Reasoning and beliefs
In a study by Alcock and Simpson (2004, 2005), the inter-
action between students modes of reasoning (i.e. visual or
non-visual) and their beliefs about their own role as learners
is investigated. The research is a naturalistic inquiry into
learners thinking about introductory real analysis (Alcock
and Simpson 2004, p. 2), with the goal of the study being to
develop a theory of the interactions between various
aspects of students thinking (p. 7). The approach is thus
cognitive and the research framework conceptual, since the
study uses theoretical concepts from various sources rather
than one overarching theory. Examples of such theoretical
concepts used are on visualisation, concept image, sponta-
neous conceptions (Cornu 1991), perceptual proof scheme
(Harel and Sowder 1998), semiotic control (Ferrari 2002),
and, for the method, grounded theory, and the distinction
account of/account for (Mason 2002).
The empirical data consist of protocols from interviews
with pairs of students, engaged in rst-year analysis cour-
ses, discussing general issues on university studies,
working on given limit problems on sequences and series,
and a review of the task session discussing proof and
denitions. From the data the observed group of students
could be classied either as visual or non-visual
depending on their tendencies to introduce diagrams or not
during tasks, to use gestures/qualitative terms or algebraic
representations when offering explanations, to explicitly
state their preference or disinclination for pictures or dia-
grams in reasoning, and to base their sense making to non-
algebraic or algebraic reasoning.
The visualizers generally set focus on the mathematical
objects as constructs, draw quick initial conclusions,
On the inuence of theory on research in mathematics education 193
1 3
and show Conviction in their own assertions (Alcock
and Simpson 2004, p. 10). However, a further analysis
revealed three bands of behaviour of the visualizers,
depending on the consistency of the way the mathematical
objects were displayed with the formal denitions, and on
the ability to use those denitions as a basis for argu-
mentation. These behaviours were found to interact with
the students beliefs about the learners role. Students that
expect to see consistency and structure and use exible
links between visual and formal representations in
mathematics, show an internal sense of authority, setting
value to their own judgement (p. 18). Students using
images that are not of sufcient generality to justify their
reasoning exhibit a belief that mathematics will be pro-
vided by an external authority (p. 24). In a similar way,
the non-visual students could be divided into three bands
of behaviour, depending on the accurate use of the math-
ematical denitions, and on the degree of semiotic
control connecting algebraic representations with under-
lying concepts. Also the mathematical behaviour of these
students revealed an interaction with their beliefs regarding
internal or external authority. The way the course was
conducted could not explain the different preferences, and
both groups showed a wide range of success and failure,
indicating that there is no perfect presentation that will
be available to all students and successful (Alcock and
Simpson 2005, p. 98).
3.3 The algebra and the topology of limits
The research presented in Barbe et al. (2005) is located
within the Anthropological Theory of Didactics (ATD) and
adopts a theoretical framework where mathematical
activity has to be interpreted as an ordinary human activity,
along with other forms of activity, and thus proposes a
general model of human activities (the praxeologies) that
links and gives the same importance to their theoretical
(knowledge) and practical (knowhow) dimension (Bosch
and Gascon 2006, p. 59). A key object of study is therefore
the organisation of the mathematical knowledge to be
Based on an epistemological approach, one of the main
methodological principles of this research is to take into
account how the mathematical knowledge as it is proposed
to be taught constraints the students (and the teachers)
mathematical practices. In the case of limits of functions,
due to a complex historical process of didactic transposi-
tion, the mathematical knowledge to be taught appears to
be a disconnected union of two mathematical organisations
originated from different fundamental questions in the
scholar mathematical institution: the algebra of limits
that starts from the supposition of the existence of the limit
of a function and poses the problem of how to calculate it
for a given family of functions; and the topology of
limits approaching the question of the nature of the
mathematical object limit of a function and responding
to the problem of the existence of the limit of different
kinds of functions. Due to traditional tasks and techniques
in textbooks and syllabi, the algebra of limits becomes the
practical dimension of the mathematical organisation to be
taught, while at the same time the theoretical dimension
remains closer to the topology of limits. This mismatch of
the two parts of the taught praxeology causes problems for
the teacher, as well as the students, to explain, justify, and
give meaning to the work on limits. The available theo-
retical discourse is not appropriate to justify the techniques
students learn to use and thus appears to be unmotivated,
without any rationale and unable to justify the practice of
the algebra of limitswhich, for this reason, tends to be
considered as a mechanical practice difcult to develop.
According to the ATD, the main reason for this phenom-
enon has to be found, not in the human cognition of
teachers and students, but in the severe constraints imposed
by the process of didactic transposition on the kind of
mathematics that can be taught (and learned) at school.
Without taking into account these institutional constraints,
it seems difcult to understand what teachers and students
do (and cannot do) when facing a problem involving limits
of functions.
The split mathematical praxeology about limits of
functions explains some important distortions on the
teachers and the students practice that are due to con-
straints coming from the rst steps of the process of
didactic transposition. For instance, the difculties for the
teacher to give meaning to the mathematical praxeolo-
gies to be taught, because the rationale of limits of
functions (why we need to consider and calculate them)
cannot be integrated in the mathematical practice that is
actually developed at this level. The empirical data for
analysing these issues in the particular case reported, were
taken from syllabi, textbooks, and classroom observations.
3.4 An analysis of inuences of theory
An overview of the inuence of the adopted theoretical
basis on each of the three studies presented above is shown
in Table 1, structured by the research question stated in
Sect. 1, and by the descriptions, terms and models dis-
cussed above in the section on research frameworks and
theories. For the main purpose categories, see Fig. 2. The
approach has been classied to be cognitive, social, or
epistemological, as described above, and the research
framework theoretical, conceptual, or practical. The main
research question of the studies, in my interpretation, are
listed under questions. Then some key words describing
research methods are given, with the kind of data used in
194 C. Bergsten
1 3
the study listed under evidence, and my interpretation of
the main results under conclusions. Finally, some impli-
cations of the studies are added, relating to further research
needed, educational practice or recommendations.
The two studies using a cognitive approach both
investigate the inuence of learning environments on the
development of students understanding of the mathemat-
ical concept of limit. The research frameworks adopted,
however, may be characterized as closed and open,
respectively. Cottrill et al. (1996) start with, and stay
within, a specic theory focusing, along with an episte-
mological analysis of the limit concept, on the cognitive
development of the individual student. This stance is
forcing interview data to be interpreted in terms of the
basic notions of the theory only, that is actions, processes,
objects, and schemas: In trying to t our observations
with the APOS theory, we felt the need to pay more
attention to the idea of schema than in our previous work
with this theory (p. 190). The clinical interview is chosen,
in line with the Piaget tradition, as the method for col-
lecting evidence on the state of a students mental schema.
Due to the double aim of the study, a cyclic process of
research is needed to rene the genetic decomposition.
This is a closed (theoretical) framework, and the conclu-
sions may be called a progressive conrmation of the
expected aims.
As a contrast, the study by Alcock and Simpson (2004)
began as a qualitative investigation of the way different
learning environments inuence students developing
understanding of real analysis (p. 1). The centrality of
the distinction between visualizers and non-visualizers,
and the interacting role of beliefs, did only emerge by
inductive analysis of the data (p. 1). This is an indi-
cator of a kind of openness of the adopted conceptual
framework. Here, the aim was not to develop an
instructional design by using a specic theory-based tool,
but to increase understanding of the inuence of learning
environments on students conceptual understanding.
Thus, possibly not to force students thinking to t a
specic line of development, the data collection method
chosen was task solving in pairs, in addition to open
questions on general views on mathematics and on proof
and denitions. Based on the conceptual framework,
which can be seen as emerging from the research problem
and the interpretation of data, the conclusion of the
research is the development of a theory which accounts
for the students behaviour based on the interactions
between degrees of visualization and beliefs on authority
(Alcock and Simpson 2004, p. 2).
The study by Barbe et al. (2005) shares with Cottrill
et al. (1996) a questioning of the mathematical content in
use but outlines a very different kind of questioning of
this object. While Alcock and Simpson (2004, 2005) take
the scholar point of view on limits of functions for
granted, the theory of didactic transposition allows this
questioning. By the analytical tools provided by the ATD
Table 1 A comparison of three research studies on limits of functions
Study Cottrill et al. (1996) Alcock and Simpson (2004, 2005) Barbe et al. (2005)
Main purpose Improved understanding and products Improved understanding Improved understanding
Approach Cognitive Cognitive Epistemological
Research framework Theoretical: APOS theory Conceptual: a set of local theories
and concepts
Theoretical: ATD
Questions How does a genetic decomposition
of how the limit concept can be
learned look like?
How do various aspects of students
thinking interact?
How are teachers practices restricted
by mathematical and didactical
Methods Research cycle: analysisdesign
Open and task based interviews Epistemological analysis and
observations of mathematical and
didactical organisations
Evidence Interview protocols Interview protocols Syllabi, textbooks, classroom
Conclusions Dynamic conception of limit
Formal concept of limit not static
Rened genetic decomposition of
A theory about the interactions
between students tendency to
visualize and beliefs about their
own role as learners
The internal dynamic of the didactic
process is affected by mathematical
and didactical constraints that
determine teachers practice and the
mathematics taught
Implications Further research on quantication
needed, along with the genetic
decomposition, to design effective
At least in small group teaching
situations, different students
tendencies to visualize should be
taken into account
Problems of motivation, meaning,
atomisation of curricula, etc., need
a deeper understanding of
institutional restrictions regulating
On the inuence of theory on research in mathematics education 195
1 3
framework the problems that teachers and students
encounter are found to be located in the disconnectedness
of the mathematical and didactical organisation of the
knowledge, due to the process of didactic transposition
and institutional constraints. Focus is more on the
didactical organisation of teaching and related phenomena
than on individual students thinking processes. Taking
this epistemological approach, the empirical investigations
reveal at a systemic level the potential meaning and
motivation of the students work by looking at what types
of problems and techniques are focused in the classroom,
and how these are related to an available theoretical
discourse that justies their use. The research question,
methodological tools, the theoretical discourse for analy-
sing the data, as well as the formulation of the results and
conclusions, are all expressed in terms of the predened
theoretical framework.
The three studies highlighted in the analysis all origi-
nate from common observations of student difculties in
the mathematical content area of limits of functions, but
display, by their different approaches and research frame-
works, different kinds and levels of research questions and
answers, based on different kinds of methods and evi-
dence. The conclusions from the research, in particular and
as a consequence of the research questions, differ consid-
erably at a qualitative level: within the APOS theory,
claims are made at a local conceptual and instructional
level; within the conceptual framework, a local theory to
account for the data is postulated, with a focus on the
individual students thinking; and within the ATD frame-
work, explanations are found at a systemic level. In
addition, the implications listed in Table 1 stay for the
cognitive approach at a local level of understandings and
instruction, while the epistemological approach takes
another perspective and considers the level of institutional
restrictions as necessary to account for teachers practice
and students behaviour.
4 Discussion
To compare research studies is in itself a research task,
and, as a consequence, requires a theoretical stance
within which to work. Within the scholarship triangle
(Fig. 1) it concerns theory as a mediator between
research and problems, a role described by Silver and
Herbst (2007, p. 50) as theory as systematic organiza-
tion of a corpus of research on a problem. In this paper
analytical tools based mainly on Cobb (2007), Lester
(2005), Niss (2007a, b), and Silver and Herbst (2007)
were chosen to organise the present meta study by
providing a basis for the structure of Table 1 and the
discussion of the ndings.
4.1 The inuence of theory on the research
Of the ways described by Silver and Herbst (2007) in
which theory can be involved as a mediator between
research and problems (p. 50), Table 1 shows how at least
three of them came into play in the comparison of studies
discussed here, that is to establish a research frame to a
problem, transform a problem to research questions, and as
generator of problems for research. The different approa-
ches transformed the commonsensical problem of
observed difculties when teaching and learning limits of
functions into a research problem formulated within a
conceptual framework or different theoretical frameworks.
As a mediator between research and practice, theory may
according to Silver and Herbst (2007, p. 56) serve the role of
supporting prescription (setting up an ideal model for
evaluating practice), understanding (deciding on the best
practice as derived from empirical research on existing
practices), and prediction (providing a denition of a best
practice). In the case of Cottrill et al. (1996), the cyclic
research and instructional design process activates all these
roles of the APOS theory. The study by Alcock and Simpson
(2004, 2005) was not focused on instructional practice, and
the recommendations for aspects of practice provided (see
the category implications in Table 1) have no support in the
research to say anything about how students tendencies to
visualize should be taken into account in teaching situations.
The category of serving to understand practice is evident in
Barbe et al. (2005), but as argued by Silver and Herbst
(2007), even the most descriptive approaches of research to
practice include a prescription of what that practice should
be that allows it to be visible and isolated from the rest of
experience (p. 53). This is a kind of methodological aspect
of prescription present in any research using theoretical
tools to dene and categorise its objects of study.
According to Silver and Herbst (2007), an analysis of the
role of theory as mediator between problems and practice
requires a discussion of the complex terms problem and
practice. However, it mainly refers to the identication of
what in a practice is seen as a problem, or from what
practice or aspects of a practice a problem originates. It may
also concern how new practices can be developed from the
study of problems. All these roles of theory are present in
Barbe et al. (2005) and central to the approach. In the case
of Alcock and Simpson (2004, 2005), practice is again not
the focus but an understanding of interactions between
different aspects of students thinking. Neither the con-
ceptual framework nor the resulting local theory plays any
clear mediating roles between problems and practice. The
research process in Cottrill et al. (1996) dened a chain of
developing practices where the theory used helped to
identify problems within the practice, establish criteria for a
successful development, and help redesign the practice.
196 C. Bergsten
1 3
This analysis of the mediating roles of theory between
problems, practice, and research, based on the scholarship
triangle (Fig. 1), shows how the two research studies with
a theoretical framework included more extensive and
elaborated use of theory than the study structured by a
conceptual framework. It can also be noted that for the two
theoretical framework studies, theory development is
conned to the internal level, that is the theoretical
framework itself. In contrast, the theoretical outcome of the
conceptual framework study is external, in the emergence
of a new (local) theory.
The criteria used in Cobb (2007) for comparing theo-
retical perspectives, that is characterization of the
individual, usefulness for instructional design, and limita-
tions, may also be relevant for comparing individual
studies with a focus on their theoretical underpinnings. His
summary description for how these criteria characterize
cognitive psychology ts well to the outcome of the
comparison made here of the cognitive approach studies,
for example seeing the epistemic individual as reorganiser
of activity (p. 28). However, taking an epistemological
approach with a focus on the structure of mathematical
knowledge and its organisation in didactical settings, the
criteria on the characterization of the individual is not
relevant. Concerning the pragmatic criterion of usefulness
for instructional design, the cognitive approach studies help
the design of educational activities but the means for
supporting learning are conned to the level of tasks (cf.
Cobb 2007, p. 28), while the outcome of the study using the
epistemological approach is useful at a curriculum level
and for modelling the didactical organisation of knowledge
in the classroom.
The common basis for the three studies is the com-
monsensical problem that limit of functions is a difcult
topic for students. Adopting a specic approach inuences
what kinds of questions can be asked about this problem,
with a purpose to improve understanding or to improve
products (instruction and learning). The research frame-
work denes the discourse within which the research
questions are formulated, and their answers. From the
research reports it is impossible to trace the reasons for
these choices, other than the general orientations and
interests of the researchers. According to Cobb (2007, p.
9), considering mathematics education as a design science,
the choice of theoretical perspective requires pragmatic
justication. This comment leads the discussion to the
issue of interpreting research results.
4.2 Comparing outcomes of research
It is evident from the examples in this meta study how a
chosen research framework denes the world in which the
research lives and grows, a fact that also has implications on
how to interpret outcomes of research. It points to the dif-
cult task to compare research results within a common eld
of study taking into account the different approaches and
research frameworks used. For example, the fact that insti-
tutional constraints rarely are taken into account in didactic
research makes it difcult to compare results from studies
doing that with others not focusing on those constraints. In
Bosch, Chevallard and Gascon (2006) such a comparison
between two studies on the concept of continuity is found,
focusing on consequences of considering several dimen-
sions of a mathematical practice instead of only one,
concluding that students difculties in the learning of a
piece of knowledge that is praxeologically out of
meaning can be taken as a positive symptom of the edu-
cational system, instead of a problem in itself (p. 1261).
It is in the nature of a scientic approach to adopt a
specic focus in order to reveal an observation of any
signicance. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is necessary to
restrict attention in order to account for the inherent
complexity of the studied phenomenon, to avoid simpli-
cations. This implies however, that after doing such ne-
grained analyses, which may be situated at different loca-
tions on a micromacro level scale in terms of individual
cognitive functioning or institutional framings (see the
paper by Prediger in this issue), it is also necessary to put
the resulting observations into context to validate any
further conclusions or implications. For example, how does
the observed covariation between students tendency to
visualize and beliefs about their own role as learners in the
study by Alcock and Simpson (2004, 2005) link to the
construction of the learners cognitive schemas of a spe-
cic mathematical object like limits of functions, as
developed through the seven steps of the genetic decom-
position outlined in Cottrill et al. (1996)? And how does it
relate to the connectedness of the mathematical organisa-
tion as dened by the curriculum? The different studies
focus on different dimensions and offer solutions to dif-
ferent kinds of research problems, which may be related to
a recognised general (commonsensical) problem of the
difculties of teaching and learning the mathematical
content area limits of functions. A way to understand the
nature of such relations may be by pragmatic justication.
An important difference found between the studies
analysed here is the level of intervention they suggest in
their conclusions and implications, as indicated in Table 1.
Alcock and Simpson (2004) propose modifying teaching
by taking into account student characteristics and beliefs,
possible only at an individual or small group level. To
accomplish this they recommend work with specic kinds
of tasks (cf. Cobb, 2007). However, the approach and
research framework adopted do not provide much advice
for how to design such tasks or how to work with them.
Cottrill et al. (1996) take the design and effectiveness of
On the inuence of theory on research in mathematics education 197
1 3
the teaching proposal into account without questioning if
limits of functions have to be taught or why, as well as the
connections (or the raison detre) of this specic content
within the mathematics curriculum of which it is a part.
Barbe et al. (2005) point out the main reason of the dif-
culty of learning limits at an institutional level. Students
have difculties in learning, and teachers in teaching
because the mathematical organisation does not have any
sense in the practical mathematical activity carried out in
school at this level. In each case very different objects are
questioned: students beliefs and abilities, teaching
designs, and the rationale of a given notion in a curriculum,
The level of intervention thus varies completely.
Allowing an oversimplication, one may formulate the
observations above as no matter how good are the stu-
dents or the teacher, it has no sense (for Barbe et al.
2005), no matter how are the students if the teaching
process is not good (for Cottrill et al. 1996), or no
matter why this is taught nor how, what matters rst is the
nature of the students (for Alcock and Simpson 2004,
2005). To synthesise such seemingly confusing results into
a coherent knowledge base to support instructional design
dealing with the particular commonsensical educational
problem is an important but difcult research problem.
Artigue et al. (2007) point to some examples where efforts
have been made to combine different approaches to
research on post-secondary level mathematics, stating that
there is an explosion of notions and terms that is not easy
to make sense of, but links and partial translations are
often possible (p. 1030). However, by adopting different
approaches and theoretical frameworks, the discussion
above has shown that the objects of study also differ and
cannot be directly translated into each other. This
observation is a challenge to the development of net-
working strategies.
5 Conclusion
The comparative meta study made here shows, while see-
ing the content eld of the didactics of limits of function
as a whole from both epistemic and pragmatic purposes,
that research results from one approach only cannot
account for all problematic phenomena, including their
causes and potential solutions. Using a specic research
framework connes the world in which the research and its
implications live, and there are many worlds involved in
the context of educational systems, such as the cognitive,
the social and the epistemological. However, these
worlds are analytic categories inserted by our ways of
organising what we experience as reality, and are thus not
separated in the continuous ow of life. An evidence of this
is the appearance of the second wave theories in cog-
nitive psychology, due to the need to account also for
affective and contextual factors in cognition (De Corte
et al. 1996). Didactical research therefore needs to inves-
tigate all these dimensions with an awareness that there is
one more step to go to obtain a progression of our didac-
tical knowledge of a content area like limits of functions.
This step requires a development of a (hierarchically
organised) network of the different contributions to this
knowledge. Considering the implications of constraints of
different research frameworks, examples of which have
been demonstrated above, ways to link research results on
different dimensions of didactical phenomena, such as
epistemological, cognitive, and social, need to be devel-
oped. Comparisons of the kind presented here, considering
the assumptions and characteristics of the research process
on which the results and their implications depend, may
contribute to a basis for the construction of such networks
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