Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Special Education

First Advisor

Evelyn Reed, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Angela Wetzel, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Yaoying Xu, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Teresa Carter, Ed.D.


The purpose of this research was to investigate special educators’ problem solving approaches through the lens of adaptive expertise. An explanatory sequential mixed methods design was used with participants of varying experience levels and teaching contexts from one Mid-Atlantic state. Participants responded to a researcher-developed survey about their orientations to problem solving (N = 162), then a purposive sample completed semi-structured interviews (N = 8). Following survey measure refinement and validation, quantitative data were analyzed through descriptive statistics, z-scores, correlation, and chi-square test of independence. Subsequently, qualitative data were analyzed through iterative cycles of hypothesis and open coding. Finally, quantitative and qualitative data were linked through mixed methods analysis. Results of exploratory factor analysis identified an 18-item, two-factor structure within the survey measure. Survey results indicated most special educators had more adaptive than routine expertise orientations to problem solving; for some these orientations were balanced, while others had a much stronger orientation to adaptive expertise. Though no statistical relationship was found between teaching experience and participants’ degree of adaptive or routine tendencies when problem solving, teachers interviewed spoke of the role of experience in shaping their problem solving approaches. Many also noted that the application of particular approaches were dependent upon characteristics of their teaching contexts. Literature-based indicators of adaptive expertise were evident across examples of problem solving in special educators’ narrative data. Together, survey and interview data captured a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of special educators’ problem solving in practice than either approach could have alone.


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