School & District Management Opinion

5 Questions on Design-Based Research Partnerships, Answered

By Urban Education Contributor — August 28, 2017 4 min read
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This post features an interview conducted by the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP; @RPP_Network) with Bill Penuel (@bpenuel) about the Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR) approach to partnership work. Bill Penuel is professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder, Principal Investigator at the National Center of Research in Policy and Practice (NCRPP; @NCRPP), Co-Principal Investigator of the Research+Practice Collaboratory (@RPCollaboratory), and a contributing author to the LearnDBIR website (@LearnDBIR).

Stay tuned: Thursday’s post will feature a practitioner’s view on DBIR.

NNERPP: What are the key features of a design research partnership?

Bill Penuel (BP): As the name suggests, design is a central activity of the partnership. Design in the partnership is participatory: If a group has a stake in the problem the partnership is working on, or will be tasked with implementing a solution, they’re involved in designing solutions and saying what support they need for implementation. Typically that includes teachers, educational leaders, and researchers, but it can also include family and community members, as well as youth.

Design research partnerships often take on problems related to teaching and learning in the disciplines, as well as leadership for subject-matter learning. What gets designed isn’t just curriculum, though. It’s often professional development, assessments, pacing guides: All the things that would be needed to support implementation at the scale of an educational system like a district. When we’re engaged in this kind of design research, we call it “design-based implementation research,” because we’re developing and studying supports for implementation of programs, practices, and curricula.

I think of equity as a core feature of a design research partnership, too. Equity not just in who is at the table in design; but a key goal in supporting implementation at scale is that we want to promote equity of opportunity to learn and name the ways we are holding ourselves to account for equity. High quality instructional materials and strategies shouldn’t just be for the few. Equity also means we are culturally responsive, too: We think of how learning environments need to be designed to leverage the interests, experiences, and identities of learners.

NNERPP: What makes this approach to partnership work so compelling?

BP: It’s compelling to those of us who do it for a few reasons. First, many of us who develop curricula are really interested in seeing them used widely, and participatory design is a great way to promote getting to scale. Second, we learn a lot when we try to build the supports from implementation: We learn where we’ve over-designed or under-designed, we learn how teachers make sense of designs, and we learn about what policies actually support implementation, and which don’t. And last, it’s challenging but it’s fun. You really feel as though you are in a raft together, navigating rapids, finding a way through them to your goals.

NNERPP: What are some examples of problems of practice the DBIR approach is best suited to address?

BP: For sure, ones that involve designing solutions to problems of practice related to subject matter learning. That’s because design research traditionally is a hallmark approach of my field, the learning sciences. The learning sciences specializes in what might be called “small theories” of how to support very particular forms of learning -- like how to support students in explaining phenomena related to evolution. Those small theories can be very powerful guides to curriculum design, but then they end up requiring big shifts in teaching and sometimes also big shifts in assessment. DBIR is well-suited to tackle that kind of problem.

NNERPP: How would someone start this kind of partnership?

BP: Small. “Start small and think smaller,” my colleague and friend Paul LeMahieu of the Carnegie Foundation (@CarnegieFdn) once said. Though our partnership is involved in some larger-scale activities these days, we started with building a technology platform where teachers could access the district adopted curriculum digitally and with designing classroom assessments for two units from the middle school science curriculum. You need to start small to build trust, and if you are a researcher, approach a district leader not with a specific idea for what you want to do, but with an interest in listening to their problems first and thinking broadly about what kinds of expertise you might need to bring.

NNERPP: Are there resources you’d recommend to our readers for further information?

BP: We have a website called LearnDBIR where you can find resources related to co-design and implementation research. There are case studies and papers there as well. It is a “daughter” website to the Research+Practice Collaboratory site, which has a toolkit for design research partnerships that includes a number of case studies and tools partnerships can use to define their problem of practice, design for equity, and communicate to different audiences. I’d like to point people especially to our webinar series that’s on YouTube called the RPP Forum, which has six different “episodes” focused on different issues in design partnerships.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.