Conceptualizations of Students with and without Disabilities as Mathematical Problem Solvers in Educational Research: A Critical Review

Rachel Lambert, Chapman University
Paulo Tan, University of Tulsa

This is the final, peer-reviewed version of an article published in Education Sciences, volume 7, issue 2, in 2017. DOI: 10.3390/educsci7020051


Students with disabilities are often framed as “the problem” and have limited opportunities to engage in standards based mathematics, leading to persistent underachievement. In this paper, we investigate a research divide between mathematics educational research for students with and without disabilities, a divide with significant differences in the theoretical orientations and research methodologies used to understand learners. Based on an analysis of 149 mathematics educational research articles published between 2013 and 2015, we found significant differences between articles focused on learners with and without disabilities. For those with disabilities, mathematical problem solving was understood primarily from behavioral and information processing theoretical perspectives, while for those without disabilities, problem solving was understood primarily through constructivist and sociocultural perspectives. While 86% of research on problem-solving including students with disabilities was quantitative, only 35% of research on students without disabilities was quantitative. Fifty percent of problem-solving research on students without disabilities was qualitative, compared to only 6% of research on students with disabilities. Problem solving, then, is studied in very different ways for learners with and without disabilities. Students without disabilities are studied through close analysis of learning, often individual. Students with disabilities are most often studied quantitatively, in groups, with little analysis of individual thinking. By offering only a limited range of methods and theoretical orientations, this research divide reifies deficit constructions of students with disabilities.