Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry (DBRC, 2003)

The Design-Based Research Collective. (2003). Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32.

A major driver of DBR is the potential it has to increase the circulation of “usable knowledge” (Lagemann, 2002) within educational research circles.

Good design-based research exhibits the following five characteristics (p. 5):

  1. The central goals of designing learning environments and developing theories or “prototheories” of learning are intertwined.
  2. Development and research take place through continuous cycles of design, enactment, analysis, and redesign (Cobb, 2001; Collins, 1992).
  3. Research on designs must lead to sharable theories that help communicate relevant implications to practitioners and other educational designers (cf. Brophy, 2002).
  4. Research must account for how designs function in authentic settings. It must not only document success or failure but also focus on interactions that refine our understanding of the learning issues involved.
  5. The development of such accounts relies on methods that can document and connect processes of enactment to outcomes of interest.

“Claiming success for an educational intervention is a tricky business. If success means being certain that an intervention caused learning, then we need to look carefully at the intervention in a particular setting. However, research in this model would be difficult to generalize to other settings. On the other hand, if success means being able to claim that an intervention could be effective in any setting, then we should study effects across a variety of settings in order to generalize. However, this kind of research leaves many questions unanswered about how any observed learning was caused by interactions between intervention and setting. To address these problems, we view educational interventions holistically—we see interventions as enacted through the interactions between materials, teachers, and learners. Because the intervention as enacted is a product of the context in which it is implemented, the intervention is the outcome (or at least an outcome) in an important sense” (p. 5).

DBR focuses on artifacts, activity structures, institutions, scaffolds, and curricula. “Importantly, design-based research goes beyond merely designing and testing particular interventions. Interventions embody specific theoretical claims about teaching and learning, and reflect a commitment to understanding the relationships among theory, designed artifacts, and practice. At the same time, research on specific interventions can contribute to theories of learning and teaching” (p. 5-6).

“…Practitioners and researchers work together to produce meaningful change in contexts of practice (e.g., classrooms, after-school programs, teacher on-line communities). Such collaboration means that goals and design constraints are drawn from the local context as well as the researcher’s agenda, addressing one concern of many reform efforts (Robinson, 1998). Engaging such partnerships across multiple settings can uncover relationships between the numerous variables variables that come into play in classroom contexts and help refine the key components of an intervention. In particular, these partnerships can help us distinguish between a “lethal mutation” (Brown & Campione, 1996)—a reinterpretation that no longer captures the pedagogical essence of the innovation—from a productive adaptation—a reinterpretation that preserves this essence, but tailors the activity to the needs and characteristics of particular
” (p. 6).

“Sustainable innovation requires understanding how and why an innovation works within a setting over time and across settings (Brown & Campione, 1996), and generating heuristics for those interested in enacting innovations in their own local contexts” p. 6.

Response to RCTs: “…Randomized trials may systematically fail to account for phenomena that violate this method’s basic assumptions—that is, phenomena that are contextually dependent or those that result from the interaction of dozens, if not hundreds, of factors. Indeed, such phenomena are precisely what educational research most needs to account for in order to have application to educational practice” (p. 6).

However, DBR can still contribute to RCTs because they can “generate plausible causal accounts because of its focus on linking processes to outcomes in particular settings, and can productively be linked with controlled laboratory experiments or randomized clinical trials (cf. Brown, 1992) by assisting in the identification of relevant contextual factors, aiding in identification of mechanisms (not just relationships), and enriching our understanding of the nature of the intervention itself” (p. 6).

“… design-based research differs from evaluation research in the ways context and interventions are problematized” (p. 7).

“Evaluators often conceptualize context as a set of factors that are independent of the intervention itself but that may influence its effects” (p. 7).

“…design-based research views a successful innovation as a joint product of the designed intervention and the context. Hence, design-based research goes beyond perfecting a particular product. The intention of design-based research in education is to inquire more broadly into the nature of learning in a complex system and to refine generative or predictive theories of learning. Models of successful innovation can be generated through such work—models, rather than particular artifacts or programs, are the goal (cf. Brown & Campione, 1996)” (p. 7). [How are such models related to Gee’s idea of “worked examples”?]

Challenges of DBR methods: Addressing objectivity, reliability, and validity (p. 7)

  • “By trying to promote objectivity while attempting to facilitate the intervention, design-based researchers regularly find themselves in the dual intellectual roles of advocate and critic” (p.7) [It’s a necessary tension.]…design-based research typically triangulates multiple sources and kinds of data to connect intended and unintended outcomes to processes of enactment. In our view, methods that document processes of enactment provide critical evidence to establish warrants for claims about why outcomes occurred”
  • Reliability of findings and measures can be promoted through triangulation from multiple data sources, repetition of analyses across cycles of enactment, and use (or creation) of standardized measures or instruments.”
  • Validity of findings is often addressed by the partnerships and iteration typical of design-based research, which result in increasing alignment of theory, design, practice, and measurement over time”

“There is a trade-off here between the refinement of a particular innovation to maximize its success, and the generalization of findings from an ultimately highly refined enactment. The challenge for design-based research is in flexibly developing research trajectories that meet our dual goals of refining locally valuable innovations and developing more globally usable knowledge for the field” (p. 7).

Future prospects for DBR:

Four areas where design-based research methods provide the most promise (p. 8):

  1. Exploring possibilities for creating novel learning and teaching environments
  2. Developing theories of learning and instruction that are contextually based
  3. Advancing and consolidating design knowledge
  4. Increasing our capacity for educational innovation.

Definition of “design knowledge” (for Meaningful Play paper):

“…design knowledge is often characterized by common examples, patterns, and principles, and by the expertise required to apply these generalities in specific settings. Currently, design-based research communicates this knowledge in many forms, including narratives of planned and enacted instruction (Hoadley, 2002; Linn & Hsi, 2000), design principles connecting enacted designs to educational outcomes of interest (Bell, 2002b), and design patterns abstracted from one or more settings describing how a designed innovation interacts with settings and evolves (Orrill, 2001). We hope for a scholarship of design in education that adopts common communicative approaches and links theory to local applied understandings, similar to research in architecture or engineering” (p. 8).


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