What is Design Based Learning?

The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning is a teaching methodology successfully applied in K–12 classrooms since 1971. Built around Essential Questions described in the standard K–12 curriculum content DBL encompasses all subjects—Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, History, Language Arts, Music, and Art.


Regardless of grade level, subject or need for integrating the curriculum, Design-Based Learning makes a dramatic difference in a classroom. Engaging students through this hands-on methodology leads to improved attendance, fewer discipline problems, higher scores on Performance Tasks, and on the Smarter Balance and Next Generation Science Standard Assessments. DBL is accessible to various types of learners, including at-risk, gifted, ADD and ADHD students. ELL students’ oral and written communication skills are enhanced through their engagement in the design challenges.


Design-Based Learning and its 6 ½ Steps of Backwards Thinking™ is rooted in the spatial domain —learning by doing.   Building physical artifacts (not art projects) opens up higher level thinking skills that propel creative thinking through quickly made miniature models—a creature or avatar, a shelter, a neighborhood, a colony, a city— designed and built by students.  Designing solutions to content-related problems they learn to express themselves, become agile decision-makers, with the ability to use and reuse concepts and big ideas across the curriculum and in multiple settings.


DBL is not intended to replace lessons teachers would teach anyway. Rather, it gives them a powerful methodology for presenting an integrated curriculum to meet the required Content and Common Core Standards. A background in art or design is not necessary. DBL doesn’t require expensive materials. Paper, pencils, glue and recycled materials are all you need. As a result, DBL programs are unaffected by textbook changes and budget reductions.



What Makes Design-Based Learning Unique & Effective?

Unlike traditional teaching the teacher is a facilitator, observer and guide. Students learn that there are no wrong answers and that their opinion counts.  They gain confidence in justifying their thinking as they try out ideas in a safe environment and find that there are many right answers.


DBL is not a program, a curriculum, a pre-scripted lesson plan or arts & crafts, it is a methodology for delivering required K–12 curriculum that teaches life and career skills. Teachers have the flexibility to determine how and when to integrate DBL challenges with Common Core Standards. DBL has curriculum embedded assessment.


While in traditional education learning is often void of context, DBL is based on generating a comprehensive sequence of connected curriculum-related design challenges. Teachers use district pacing guides and content specific standards to develop an engaging, integrated curriculum.


Building a city functions as a vehicle for students to connect concrete ideas to abstract academic concepts, and to imagine creative solutions to challenges that arise in building and running the city. The city lends itself to the discussion of numerous academic subjects such as characters and plot, government systems and biological functions. Students learn to revise their solutions after discussion, textbook study and research.  Building an original model of a city, a colony, a civilization or a business targets higher level thinking and promotes shared problem solving.


While traditional education is teacher-centered, DBL is student-centered. Students learn to communicate by role-playing the jobs of city life. They become both self-directed and interdependent as they discuss, describe, explain and justify their solutions to design challenges.


DBL does away with replication or making a model of anything that already exists, and opts instead for very rough, student-built 3-D solutions to problems that have been solved by others throughout history. Students develop entrepreneurial literacy as they construct original designs by following pre-set criteria. They present their 3D solutions for peer feedback to expand their critical thinking, creativity and ability to communicate and collaborate.


Backwards Thinking™ is at the core of DBL. Students develop never-before-seen 3D solutions to problems posed as design challenges, before textbook study and research. Students are engaged from the start at the higher level thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy when they are asked to solve problems.  In the process of finding solutions, students develop the lower level skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  (Other methods begin at the lower level and do not move up to higher-level thinking.)


While traditional education might seek for perfect and aesthetically pleasing products that replicate past inventions, DBL pursues unfinished, imperfect, never-before-seen 3D designs that invite revisions based on new knowledge while encouraging learning from mistakes. Teaching students to justify their designs and to think critically fosters their ability to become active participants in the process of learning.


In the end traditional education is about teaching small ideas, while DBL is constantly trying to get students explore powerful ideas, including universal concepts, principles, values and morals. Students’ knowledge of the powerful ideas behind what they have learned leads to the application of that knowledge to another field or situation.


DBL promotes community-centered projects, fostering civic literacy, global awareness, active citizenship, governance and cooperation. Students learn to be active members of their local and global communities. What more could we ask for?

* The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning (DBL) is protected by copyright and trademark law. Do not publish or make commercial use of any DBL materials without prior written permission. For details, visit csupomona.edu/copyright.html.