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Instructional Design

Learning Through Design

Design principles, perspectives, and processes in K–12 classroom practice became a topic of educational research during the final decade of the twentieth century. Research was preceded by design-based practices in the classrooms of many K–12 teachers, who engaged students in a variety of design projects and activities, such as proposing environmental strategies, creating plans for future communities, building bridges, designing machines, creating art and theater, and planning for community events. Classroom design projects thrived among teachers, who appreciated their value, but received little notice from researchers of learning. Design activities were the legacy of John Dewey and other progressive influences on schools and teachers, with roots in "experiential education," "learning by doing," and "project work." This entry is concerned exclusively with the nascent research field exploring the cognitive, metacognitive, and social contributions of design-based approaches to learning.

Research Background and Interests

The research community's interest in design-based approaches to curriculum overlap with several movements in education during the last two decades of the twentieth century. During the 1980s an education policy atmosphere developed that called for connecting what was taught and learned in school with the emerging demands of the work world. At the same time, cognitive and social research on learning evolved in new directions. Finally, research and development efforts with educational technologies emerged, bringing new concerns, tools, and methods to classroom research. In each of these arenas there was interest in problem solving, multidisciplinary approaches to content learning, social aspects of the learning process, applications of school content to the real world, and development of new tools. Because design embodies these qualities, it became a focus of research.

Policy. At the policy level, standards documents supported the importance of design-based learning experiences. The national science content standards included a strand titled "Science and Technology Standards," which called for students to engage actively in design work, from stating problems to designing solutions and evaluating them. The standards "emphasize abilities associated with the process of design and the fundamental understandings about the enterprise of science and its various linkages with technology" (National Research Council, p. 106). The Standards for Technological Literacy included design activities, stating that design is "as fundamental to technology as inquiry is to science and reading is to language arts" (International Technology Education Association, p. 90). Although not pointing directly to design, other standards documents from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics supported problem solving, modeling, and connecting schoolwork to real applications. The trend to include design was international as well. In a 1996 multinational examination of science, mathematics, and technology curricula in thirteen countries, Paul Black and J. Myron Atkin identified movement toward design-oriented curricula that coincided with the desire of educators to have relevant, applied contexts as well as contexts for students to develop their practical knowledge and understandings. Although the policy call was clear, there was little account of existing school practices and no evidence of their effectiveness.

Design-based curricula. The most comprehensive examination of design-based learning in the United States, a 1997 report by Meredith Davis and colleagues under the umbrella of the National Endowment for the Arts, attempted to find and study design-based curricula to show what teachers and students do in design and the promise it holds for educational reform. The study used an "exploratory, hypothesis-generating approach" because design practices in classrooms were not widespread. Scores of design approaches were discovered and examined. The study's contribution was in providing descriptions of design practice in classrooms and identifying effective models and outcomes for using design. The study emphasized the ways design opens learning opportunities across curriculum subjects for teachers and learners and connects them to the world and a future beyond school.

Designing for Results

Changes took place in what was of interest to study as well as in the ways social and cognitive researchers approached and conducted research. Concerns about the learning goals of schools and their connections to students' futures as citizens and workers interested cognitive and social-learning researchers. Prior research results indicated that, under the right conditions, children were capable of complicated understandings and skills, and more researchers became interested in identifying and understanding learning in practice. This brought researchers out of laboratories and into the rough and tumble of classroom life. Researchers began to connect with teachers and reformers, expanding the goals, methods, and reach of their research. New models of research became established, such as the "design experiment" and "interactive research and design," both less aimed at researching design-based learning and more focused on researchers designing, implementing, studying, and tweaking classroom activities until they achieved sought-after results. Some researchers partnered with teachers to conduct classroom-based cognitive research and to develop tools and curriculum based on research findings that specifically incorporated design.

Middle-School Mathematics through Application Project (MMAP). Research and development of educational technologies became an additional and significant intersection point. Technology and design have a symbiotic relationship. Once technology tools for problem solving were in the hands of teachers and students, design-based activities became a possibility for widespread use. The Middle-School Mathematics through Application Project (MMAP) developed and researched an approach to middle school mathematics that integrated technology as a tool for mathematics learning in the context of design-based projects. Students were introduced to mathematics as they needed it, to solve pre-specified and constrained design problems, such as building a research station in Antarctica or recommending environmental population-control policies. Design contexts were treated as resources for mathematical interaction and explanation, and they led to increasing student engagement with mathematics topics. Design contexts made real-world connections of mathematics obvious to students and gave them situational resources for developing mathematical concepts. Design contexts provided opportunities for problem definition, problem solving, and performance-based assessments.

Jasper Project. The Jasper Project incorporated design-based approaches to upper-elementary mathematics learning with technology. The Jasper series focused on mathematical problem finding and solving, reasoning, communications, and making connections to other content areas for elementary students. The Jasper Project encouraged collaborative activity on extended problems over time, while offering deep understanding of mathematical concepts. Both MMAP and the Jasper Project emphasized the emergent aspects of problem solving and the utilization of various mathematical concepts and skills along the way to solving real-world problems. They both emphasized the roles technologies could play in supporting complex, design-based work in the mathematics curriculum and the supports needed for teacher professional development and assessment.

Yasmin Kafai and Mitchell Resnick bring together research from both school and informal technology, using settings to demonstrate how design activities with games, textile patterns, and robots empower children and connect them to important mathematics and science ideas. They examined subject-matter learning and provided compelling cases for how design processes provide meaningful and productive learning settings.

Learning by Design. Research independent of technology has concentrated on connections between design contexts and content learning, especially in mathematics and science. The Learning by Design project employed design approaches in science learning. The researchers based their work on prior results to create environments for learning science concepts and their applicability through a curriculum focused on "design and build challenges." They studied how, in the context of design work, students gained a conceptual understanding of complex systems and practices and created and field tested pedagogical rituals and processes for making design projects effective.

Modeling. With a concentration in both mathematics and science, work by Richard Lehrer and Leona Schauble investigated students' understanding of modeling, which is central to design work. They studied four schools where teachers were moving away from emphasizing facts and procedures to approaches focusing on constructing, evaluating, and reviewing models. They chronicled the development of models across the K–5 years and outlined key features in teacher professional development. In other analyses, they examined the development of mathematical inscription devices for representing and communicating about data in experiments and designs.

Geometry. Several studies of geometry understanding explored design contexts. In a 1998 study on understanding space, Lehrer, Cathy Jacobson, and colleagues examined how the geometric ideas of transformation and symmetry were developed through a quilt-design activity. They found that quilt design provided students with opportunities to explore ideas of symmetry and transformation and that informal knowledge of drawing and aesthetics played a mutual role in mathematical argumentation and notation. James Middleton and Robert Corbett examined the contexts of engineering and architecture to see if realistic situations helped students develop notions of physical structure that they could in turn connect to their understanding of geometry. Students made toothpick models of geometric solids, tested their strengths, then created suspension bridges and tested their stability. Results were mixed, with conceptions of geometric contributions to stability present but applied naively in designs.

Features of Design-Based Learning under Study by Researchers

A closer look at the features of design ideas and practices reveals what has made them appealing to teachers and researchers and indicates areas for future research. As a collaborative process, design requires discussion and clarification of goals, problems, subproblems, and actions. Researchers of learning have interests in problem exploration, the development of organizational skills and logic, and the ways they connect to, or enhance, learning of content and concepts.

Once problems and solution constraints are understood, design-based brainstorming encourages participation because it requires students to offer ideas and suggestions for solving problems in the context of a low-pressure forum. This engages students as stakeholders at the start of a complex set of activities. Brainstorming reinforces equity principles by providing for cultural knowledge to be relevant, brought to the table, and consequential for engagement and participation.

Success and inclusion are encouraged because multiple solutions to design problems are sought and appreciated. Variation is an expected outcome of the design experience. Variation in response to problems requires that students keep track of their decisions and provide rationales for them.

The features mentioned, including problem definition, brainstorming, open access to varied solution paths, and collaborative work, provide support for specific discourse processes in the classroom. Discussion, making and testing conjectures, rationales, argumentation, and explanation are necessary. Students must talk about possibilities, resources, and constraints. The more students discuss the problems they are trying to solve, the more they suggest and assess the viability of specific solutions while trafficking in the vocabulary and discourse practices of the discipline, then the more they are learning.

Design work and its tools require students to interact with multiple media and representations of information and data, and these are an increasing focus of research. Students may have to create constraint lists, flowcharts, data tables, graphs, and drawings as they use numbers and number sense, measurement, and both natural language and symbolic formulas while working from problem definition to solution. Researchers recognize the ability and ease with which technologies and media can put multiple representations of problems and processes on the student's desktop.

Research on design-based approaches creates opportunities for studying performance-based assessment practices. Iterative review processes are part of design work, leaving teachers and students with more opportunities for performance-based and peer-based assessment. Elaborating and agreeing on goals, evaluating processes, giving and receiving feedback, and prioritizing and making revisions are practices in design and worthwhile assessment practices as well.

In design, students' work with extended real-world problems connects them to practical professions, such as art, architecture, and engineering. Links are created between the real world and models, between simulations and solution processes, giving students access to practical knowledge and general processes of problem solving.

Finally, design-based learning has examined teacher practices. Evidence from MMAP suggests that the design process has the effect of decentering instruction from the teacher, and provides students with more explanation opportunities, more agency, and a more balanced position of power in relation to their work progress.

Barriers to widespread design-based approaches are also evident. Design-based learning is considered difficult to adopt and implement and remains only a specialized classroom practice. Design-based projects and activities are disruptively different from traditional approaches and perspectives. They impact on "business as usual" in the classroom in terms of management, planning, pedagogy, and content focus, disrupting classroom routines and requiring new kinds of work and attention. They are complex and take extended periods of time, making it necessary to reorganize classroom activity structures.

Design projects place new demands on teachers and students. Teachers need professional development to learn how to structure and manage design-based activities and many of the design-focused research projects also depend on teacher learning and preparation. Design work supports new levels of participation from students as well. Students often make strong connections to their design projects, taking extra time and often working at home. This is a positive effect, with implications for supporting partnerships between school, home, and community, but one that needs to be negotiated.

With collaborative work, emergent, complex problems, and real-world distractions, design projects are difficult to grade. Researchers are working to find ways to articulate standards, assessments, and complex learning environments, such as design projects.


Design-based approaches to learning have a longstanding place in the K–12 classroom, yet research attention to the role and effects of design-based learning experiences is in its infancy. Recent movements in educational reform, changes in the conduct of social and cognitive research on learning, and the growth of research and development in educational technologies have contributed to design-based learning becoming a topic of interest and inquiry. Current research reports findings from work in the social and cognitive sciences on problem solving, discourse and learning, teaching and learning processes, culture and learning processes, and classroom assessment.


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