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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

frameworks.

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

e-mail: chber@mai.liu.se

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.

458).

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

1 3

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

Problems

Research Practices

Fig. 1 The scholarship triangle (Silver and Herbst 2007, p. 44)

Improved

products

Improved

understanding

Improved

understanding

Improved

products

Pure, Use- Pure,

applied inspired,

basic

research & basic

research

development research

Existing understanding

Existing products

Fig. 2 A dynamic model of educational research (Lester 2005, p.

465)

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

1 3

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

taught.

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

phenomena?

Methods Research cycle: analysisdesign

implementationobservation

analysis

Open and task based interviews Epistemological analysis and

observations of mathematical and

didactical organisations

Evidence Interview protocols Interview protocols Syllabi, textbooks, classroom

observations

Conclusions Dynamic conception of limit

complicated

Formal concept of limit not static

Rened genetic decomposition of

limit

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

instruction

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

teaching

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,

respectively.

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

of didactical knowledge.

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