Design-Based Learning: It’s a mindset, not a checklist

download-6An evolution is taking place in education. Many 21st century classrooms have moved from memorization-based, multiple choice and lecture-style instruction to inquiry and problem-based learning. The newest, and perhaps most innovative, approach is design-based learning (DBL).  With DBL, teachers don’t assign a problem for students to solve; instead, students must define real-world problems and design thoughtful, authentic solutions.

Recently, design thinking has become a buzzword in education. I’m excited by the possibilities, but I’m still trying to piece it together and understand what exactly it would it look like in the classroom. Similar to growth mindset and grit, DBL is not something that can be reduced to a step-by-step procedure or checklist. It’s a way of looking at the world, and approaching problems with an open mind, and a willingness to take a risk. A DBL mindset can then be applied to any situation – and has the power to transform the learning process for students and teachers.

images-2Here are my ideas for developing a mindset for Design-Based Learning:

Encourage empathy. In order to solve problems and design solutions, students must develop an awareness of those around them. Encourage students to start small, and brainstorm local challenges within their community. Once they have identified a problem, they should examine it from multiple angles. Students can interview members of the community to see the issue from many perspectives. They can also use surveys and research to learn as much as they can about the issue.

Embrace iteration. The motto for IDEO, an innovative design firm, is fail early and fail often. They encourage “rapid prototyping” to start creating early in the design process, and not wait until the end. Students need to be encouraged to take risks and learn from their failures.

Creation over consumption. With design-based learning, the emphasis is on creating, rather than consuming. Students learn knowledge and acquire necessary skills as they work toward creating and designing a solution or product. This keeps them motivated and engaged, and even more importantly, empowers them to truly use their learning to make a difference.

Seek feedback and collaboration. In the real world, we rarely solve problems alone. We seek the help of others. DBL fosters collaboration and allows students to improve their products based on meaningful feedback.

Take action. The true power of DBL is that it supports students in creating solutions and products that can solve real problems. The process is not complete unless students actually test their product and implement their solutions. This will lead to reflection and, perhaps, more iteration, creation, and collaboration.

These are not steps – it’s more of a cycle that overlaps and repeats. In order for DBL to be successful, students (and teachers) must become comfortable with being unsure and not knowing the answers. It requires a willingness to tackle real problems in a meaningful, innovative way. But, if we can do this, we can truly make a difference. In the real world, we don’t solve problems we already know the answer to. Why should school be any different?

The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.

– Herbert Spencer


There are many models and frameworks to guide the design thinking process in your classroom. My favorite is the LAUNCH cycle from A.J. Juliani and John Spencer.


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