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date: 26 June 2022

Qualitative Design Research Methodsfree

Qualitative Design Research Methodsfree

  • Michael DomínguezMichael DomínguezSan Diego State University


Emerging in the learning sciences field in the early 1990s, qualitative design-based research (DBR) is a relatively new methodological approach to social science and education research. As its name implies, DBR is focused on the design of educational innovations, and the testing of these innovations in the complex and interconnected venue of naturalistic settings. As such, DBR is an explicitly interventionist approach to conducting research, situating the researcher as a part of the complex ecology in which learning and educational innovation takes place.

With this in mind, DBR is distinct from more traditional methodologies, including laboratory experiments, ethnographic research, and large-scale implementation. Rather, the goal of DBR is not to prove the merits of any particular intervention, or to reflect passively on a context in which learning occurs, but to examine the practical application of theories of learning themselves in specific, situated contexts. By designing purposeful, naturalistic, and sustainable educational ecologies, researchers can test, extend, or modify their theories and innovations based on their pragmatic viability. This process offers the prospect of generating theory-developing, contextualized knowledge claims that can complement the claims produced by other forms of research.

Because of this interventionist, naturalistic stance, DBR has also been the subject of ongoing debate concerning the rigor of its methodology. In many ways, these debates obscure the varied ways DBR has been practiced, the varied types of questions being asked, and the theoretical breadth of researchers who practice DBR. With this in mind, DBR research may involve a diverse range of methods as researchers from a variety of intellectual traditions within the learning sciences and education research design pragmatic innovations based on their theories of learning, and document these complex ecologies using the methodologies and tools most applicable to their questions, focuses, and academic communities.

DBR has gained increasing interest in recent years. While it remains a popular methodology for developmental and cognitive learning scientists seeking to explore theory in naturalistic settings, it has also grown in importance to cultural psychology and cultural studies researchers as a methodological approach that aligns in important ways with the participatory commitments of liberatory research. As such, internal tension within the DBR field has also emerged. Yet, though approaches vary, and have distinct genealogies and commitments, DBR might be seen as the broad methodological genre in which Change Laboratory, design-based implementation research (DBIR), social design-based experiments (SDBE), participatory design research (PDR), and research-practice partnerships might be categorized. These critically oriented iterations of DBR have important implications for educational research and educational innovation in historically marginalized settings and the Global South.


  • Research and Assessment Methods

Educational research, perhaps more than many other disciplines, is a situated field of study. Learning happens around us every day, at all times, in both formal and informal settings. Our worlds are replete with complex, dynamic, diverse communities, contexts, and institutions, many of which are actively seeking guidance and support in the endless quest for educational innovation. Educational researchers—as a source of potential expertise—are necessarily implicated in this complexity, linked to the communities and institutions through their very presence in spaces of learning, poised to contribute with possible solutions, yet often positioned as separate from the activities they observe, creating dilemmas of responsibility and engagement.

So what are educational scholars and researchers to do? These tensions invite a unique methodological challenge for the contextually invested researcher, begging them to not just produce knowledge about learning, but to participate in the ecology, collaborating on innovations in the complex contexts in which learning is taking place. In short, for many educational researchers, our backgrounds as educators, our connections to community partners, and our sociopolitical commitments to the process of educational innovation push us to ensure that our work is generative, and that our theories and ideas—our expertise—about learning and education are made pragmatic, actionable, and sustainable. We want to test what we know outside of laboratories, designing, supporting, and guiding educational innovation to see if our theories of learning are accurate, and useful to the challenges faced in schools and communities where learning is messy, collaborative, and contested. Through such a process, we learn, and can modify our theories to better serve the real needs of communities. It is from this impulse that qualitative design-based research (DBR) emerged as a new methodological paradigm for education research.

Qualitative design-based research will be examined, documenting its origins, the major tenets of the genre, implementation considerations, and methodological issues, as well as variance within the paradigm. As a relatively new methodology, much tension remains in what constitutes DBR, and what design should mean, and for whom. These tensions and questions, as well as broad perspectives and emergent iterations of the methodology, will be discussed, and considerations for researchers looking toward the future of this paradigm will be considered.

The Origins of Design-Based Research

Qualitative design-based research (DBR) first emerged in the learning sciences field among a group of scholars in the early 1990s, with the first articulation of DBR as a distinct methodological construct appearing in the work of Ann Brown (1992) and Allan Collins (1992). For learning scientists in the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional methodologies of laboratory experiments, ethnographies, and large-scale educational interventions were the only methods available. During these decades, a growing community of learning science and educational researchers (e.g., Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989; Brown, Campione, Webber, & McGilley, 1992; Cobb & Steffe, 1983; Cole, 1995; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991; Schoenfeld, 1982, 1985; Scribner & Cole, 1978) interested in educational innovation and classroom interventions in situated contexts began to find the prevailing methodologies insufficient for the types of learning they wished to document, the roles they wished to play in research, and the kinds of knowledge claims they wished to explore. The laboratory, or laboratory-like settings, where research on learning was at the time happening, was divorced from the complexity of real life, and necessarily limiting. Alternatively, most ethnographic research, while more attuned to capturing these complexities and dynamics, regularly assumed a passive stance1 and avoided interceding in the learning process, or allowing researchers to see what possibility for innovation existed from enacting nascent learning theories. Finally, large-scale interventions could test innovations in practice but lost sight of the nuance of development and implementation in local contexts (Brown, 1992; Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004).

Dissatisfied with these options, and recognizing that in order to study and understand learning in the messiness of socially, culturally, and historically situated settings, new methods were required, Brown (1992) proposed an alternative: Why not involve ourselves in the messiness of the process, taking an active, grounded role in disseminating our theories and expertise by becoming designers and implementers of educational innovations? Rather than observing from afar, DBR researchers could trace their own iterative processes of design, implementation, tinkering, redesign, and evaluation, as it unfolded in shared work with teachers, students, learners, and other partners in lived contexts. This premise, initially articulated as “design experiments” (Brown, 1992), would be variously discussed over the next decade as “design research,” (Edelson, 2002) “developmental research,” (Gravemeijer, 1994), and “design-based research,” (Design-Based Research Collective, 2003), all of which reflect the original, interventionist, design-oriented concept. The latter term, “design-based research” (DBR), is used here, recognizing this as the prevailing terminology used to refer to this research approach at present.2

Regardless of the evolving moniker, the prospects of such a methodology were extremely attractive to researchers. Learning scientists acutely aware of various aspects of situated context, and interested in studying the applied outcomes of learning theories—a task of inquiry into situated learning for which canonical methods were rather insufficient—found DBR a welcome development (Bell, 2004). As Barab and Squire (2004) explain: “learning scientists . . . found that they must develop technological tools, curriculum, and especially theories that help them systematically understand and predict how learning occurs” (p. 2), and DBR methodologies allowed them to do this in proactive, hands-on ways. Thus, rather than emerging as a strict alternative to more traditional methodologies, DBR was proposed to fill a niche that other methodologies were ill-equipped to cover.

Effectively, while its development is indeed linked to an inherent critique of previous research paradigms, neither Brown nor Collins saw DBR in opposition to other forms of research. Rather, by providing a bridge from the laboratory to the real world, where learning theories and proposed innovations could interact and be implemented in the complexity of lived socio-ecological contexts (Hoadley, 2004), new possibilities emerged. Learning researchers might “trace the evolution of learning in complex, messy classrooms and schools, test and build theories of teaching and learning, and produce instructional tools that survive the challenges of everyday practice” (Shavelson, Phillips, Towne, & Feuer, 2003, p. 25). Thus, DBR could complement the findings of laboratory, ethnographic, and large-scale studies, answering important questions about the implementation, sustainability, limitations, and usefulness of theories, interventions, and learning when introduced as innovative designs into situated contexts of learning. Moreover, while studies involving these traditional methodologies often concluded by pointing toward implications—insights subsequent studies would need to take up—DBR allowed researchers to address implications iteratively and directly. No subsequent research was necessary, as emerging implications could be reflexively explored in the context of the initial design, offering considerable insight into how research is translated into theory and practice.

Since its emergence in 1992, DBR as a methodological approach to educational and learning research has quickly grown and evolved, used by researchers from a variety of intellectual traditions in the learning sciences, including developmental and cognitive psychology (e.g., Brown & Campione, 1996, 1998; diSessa & Minstrell, 1998), cultural psychology (e.g., Cole, 1996, 2007; Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989; Gutiérrez, Bien, Selland, & Pierce, 2011), cultural anthropology (e.g., Barab, Kinster, Moore, Cunningham, & the ILF Design Team, 2001; Polman, 2000; Stevens, 2000; Suchman, 1995), and cultural-historical activity theory (e.g., Engeström, 2011; Espinoza, 2009; Espinoza & Vossoughi, 2014; Gutiérrez, 2008; Sannino, 2011). Given this plurality of epistemological and theoretical fields that employ DBR, it might best be understood as a broad methodology of educational research, realized in many different, contested, heterogeneous, and distinct iterations, and engaging a variety of qualitative tools and methods (Bell, 2004). Despite tensions among these iterations, and substantial and important variances in the ways they employ design-as-research in community settings, there are several common, methodological threads that unite the broad array of research that might be classified as DBR under a shared, though pluralistic, paradigmatic umbrella.

The Tenets of Design-Based Research

Why Design-Based Research?

As we turn to the core tenets of the design-based research (DBR) paradigm, it is worth considering an obvious question: Why use DBR as a methodology for educational research? To answer this, it is helpful to reflect on the original intentions for DBR, particularly, that it is not simply the study of a particular, isolated intervention. Rather, DBR methodologies were conceived of as the complete, iterative process of designing, modifying, and assessing the impact of an educational innovation in a contextual, situated learning environment (Barab & Kirshner, 2001; Brown, 1992; Cole & Engeström, 2007). The design process itself—inclusive of the theory of learning employed, the relationships among participants, contextual factors and constraints, the pedagogical approach, any particular intervention, as well as any changes made to various aspects of this broad design as it proceeds—is what is under study.

Considering this, DBR offers a compelling framework for the researcher interested in having an active and collaborative hand in designing for educational innovation, and interested in creating knowledge about how particular theories of learning, pedagogical or learning practices, or social arrangements function in a context of learning. It is a methodology that can put the researcher in the position of engineer, actively experimenting with aspects of learning and sociopolitical ecologies to arrive at new knowledge and productive outcomes, as Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, and Schauble (2003) explain:

Prototypically, design experiments entail both “engineering” particular forms of learning and systematically studying those forms of learning within the context defined by the means of supporting them. This designed context is subject to test and revision, and the successive iterations that result play a role similar to that of systematic variation in experiment. (p. 9)

This being said, how directive the engineering role the researcher takes on varies considerably among iterations of DBR. Indeed, recent approaches have argued strongly for researchers to take on more egalitarian positionalities with respect to the community partners with whom they work (e.g., Zavala, 2016), acting as collaborative designers, rather than authoritative engineers.

Method and Methodology in Design-Based Research

Now, having established why we might use DBR, a recurring question that has faced the DBR paradigm is whether DBR is a methodology at all. Given the variety of intellectual and ontological traditions that employ it, and thus the pluralism of methods used in DBR to enact the “engineering” role (whatever shape that may take) that the researcher assumes, it has been argued that DBR is not, in actuality a methodology at all (Kelly, 2004). The proliferation and diversity of approaches, methods, and types of analysis purporting to be DBR have been described as a lack of coherence that shows there is no “argumentative grammar” or methodology present in DBR (Kelly, 2004).

Now, the conclusions one will eventually draw in this debate will depend on one’s orientations and commitments, but it is useful to note that these demands for “coherence” emerge from previous paradigms in which methodology was largely marked by a shared, coherent toolkit for data collection and data analysis. These previous paradigmatic rules make for an odd fit when considering DBR. Yet, even if we proceed—within the qualitative tradition from which DBR emerges—defining methodology as an approach to research that is shaped by the ontological and epistemological commitments of the particular researcher, and methods as the tools for research, data collection, and analysis that are chosen by the researcher with respect to said commitments (Gutiérrez, Engeström, & Sannino, 2016), then a compelling case for DBR as a methodology can be made (Bell, 2004).

Effectively, despite the considerable variation in how DBR has been and is employed, and tensions within the DBR field, we might point to considerable, shared epistemic common ground among DBR researchers, all of whom are invested in an approach to research that involves engaging actively and iteratively in the design and exploration of learning theory in situated, natural contexts. This common epistemic ground, even in the face of pluralistic ideologies and choices of methods, invites in a new type of methodological coherence, marked by “intersubjectivity without agreement” (Matusov, 1996), that links DBR from traditional developmental and cognitive psychology models of DBR (e.g., Brown, 1992; Brown & Campione, 1998; Collins, 1992), to more recent critical and sociocultural manifestations (e.g., Bang & Vossoughi, 2016; Engeström, 2011; Gutiérrez, 2016), and everything in between.

Put in other terms, even as DBR researchers may choose heterogeneous methods for data collection, data analysis, and reporting results complementary to the ideological and sociopolitical commitments of the particular researcher and the types of research questions that are under examination (Bell, 2004), a shared epistemic commitment gives the methodology shape. Indeed, the common commitment toward design innovation emerges clearly across examples of DBR methodological studies ranging in method from ethnographic analyses (Salvador, Bell, & Anderson, 1999) to studies of critical discourse within a design (Kärkkäinen, 1999), to focused examinations of metacognition of individual learners (White & Frederiksen, 1998), and beyond. Rather than indicating a lack of methodology, or methodological weakness, the use of varying qualitative methods for framing data collection and retrospective analyses within DBR, and the tensions within the epistemic common ground itself, simply reflects the scope of its utility. Learning in context is complex, contested, and messy, and the plurality of methods present across DBR allow researchers to dynamically respond to context as needed, employing the tools that fit best to consider the questions that are present, or may arise.

All this being the case, it is useful to look toward the coherent elements—the “argumentative grammar” of DBR, if you will—that can be identified across the varied iterations of DBR. Understanding these shared features, in the context and terms of the methodology itself, help us to appreciate what is involved in developing robust and thorough DBR research, and how DBR seeks to make strong, meaningful claims around the types of research questions it takes up.

Coherent Features of Design-Based Research

Several scholars have provided comprehensive overviews and listings of what they see as the cross-cutting features of DBR, both in the context of more traditional models of DBR (e.g., Cobb et al., 2003; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003), and in regards to newer iterations (e.g., Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). Rather than try to offer an overview of each of these increasingly pluralistic classifications, the intent here is to attend to three broad elements that are shared across articulations of DBR and reflect the essential elements that constitute the methodological approach DBR offers to educational researchers.

Design research is concerned with the development, testing, and evolution of learning theory in situated contexts

This first element is perhaps most central to what DBR of all types is, anchored in what Brown (1992) was initially most interested in: testing the pragmatic validity of theories of learning by designing interventions that engaged with, or proposed, entire, naturalistic, ecologies of learning. Put another way, while DBR studies may have various units of analysis, focuses, and variables, and may organize learning in many different ways, it is the theoretically informed design for educational innovation that is most centrally under evaluation. DBR actively and centrally exists as a paradigm that is engaged in the development of theory, not just the evaluation of aspects of its usage (Bell, 2004; Design-Based Research Collective, 2003; Lesh & Kelly, 2000; van den Akker, 1999).

Effectively, where DBR is taking place, theory as a lived possibility is under examination. Specifically, in most DBR, this means a focus on “intermediate-level” theories of learning, rather than “grand” ones. In essence, DBR does not contend directly with “grand” learning theories (such as developmental or sociocultural theory writ large) (diSessa, 1991). Rather, DBR seeks to offer constructive insights by directly engaging with particular learning processes that flow from these theories on a “grounded,” “intermediate” level. This is not, however, to say DBR is limited in what knowledge it can produce; rather, tinkering in this “intermediate” realm can produce knowledge that informs the “grand” theory (Gravemeijer, 1994). For example, while cognitive and motivational psychology provide “grand” theoretical frames, interest-driven learning (IDL) is an “intermediate” theory that flows from these and can be explored in DBR to both inform the development of IDL designs in practice and inform cognitive and motivational psychology more broadly (Joseph, 2004).

Crucially, however, DBR entails putting the theory in question under intense scrutiny, or, “into harm’s way” (Cobb et al., 2003). This is an especially core element to DBR, and one that distinguishes it from the proliferation of educational-reform or educational-entrepreneurship efforts that similarly take up the discourse of “design” and “innovation.” Not only is the reflexive, often participatory element of DBR absent from such efforts—that is, questioning and modifying the design to suit the learning needs of the context and partners—but the theory driving these efforts is never in question, and in many cases, may be actively obscured. Indeed, it is more common to see educational-entrepreneur design innovations seek to modify a context—such as the way charter schools engage in selective pupil recruitment and intensive disciplinary practices (e.g., Carnoy et al., 2005; Ravitch, 2010; Saltman, 2007)—rather than modify their design itself, and thus allow for humility in their theory. Such “innovations” and “design” efforts are distinct from DBR, which must, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, be willing to see the learning theory flail and struggle, be modified, and evolve.

This growth and evolution of theory and knowledge is of course central to DBR as a rigorous research paradigm; moving it beyond simply the design of local educational programs, interventions, or innovations. As Barab and Squire (2004) explain:

Design-based research requires more than simply showing a particular design works but demands that the researcher (move beyond a particular design exemplar to) generate evidence-based claims about learning that address contemporary theoretical issues and further the theoretical knowledge of the field. (pp. 5–6)

DBR as a research paradigm offers a design process through which theories of learning can be tested; they can be modified, and by allowing them to operate with humility in situated conditions, new insights and knowledge, even new theories, may emerge that might inform the field, as well as the efforts and directions of other types of research inquiry. These productive, theory-developing outcomes, or “ontological innovations” (diSessa & Cobb, 2004), represent the culmination of an effective program of DBR—the production of new ways to understand, conceptualize, and enact learning as a lived, contextual process.

Design research works to understand learning processes, and the design that supports them in situated contexts

As a research methodology that operates by tinkering with “grounded” learning theories, DBR is itself grounded, and seeks to develop its knowledge claims and designs in naturalistic, situated contexts (Brown, 1992). This is, again, a distinguishing element of DBR—setting it apart from laboratory research efforts involving design and interventions in closed, controlled environments. Rather than attempting to focus on singular variables, and isolate these from others, DBR is concerned with the multitude of variables that naturally occur across entire learning ecologies, and present themselves in distinct ways across multiple planes of possible examination (Rogoff, 1995; Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004). Certainly, specific variables may be identified as dependent, focal units of analysis, but identifying (while not controlling for) the variables beyond these, and analyzing their impact on the design and learning outcomes, is an equally important process in DBR (Collins et al., 2004; Barab & Kirshner, 2001). In practice, this of course varies across iterations in its depth and breadth. Traditional models of developmental or cognitive DBR may look to account for the complexity and nuance of a setting’s social, developmental, institutional, and intellectual characteristics (e.g., Brown, 1992; Cobb et al., 2003), while more recent, critical iterations will give increased attention to how historicity, power, intersubjectivity, and culture, among other things, influence and shape a setting, and the learning that occurs within it (e.g., Gutiérrez, 2016; Vakil, de Royston, Nasir, & Kirshner, 2016).

Beyond these variations, what counts as “design” in DBR varies widely, and so too will what counts as a naturalistic setting. It has been well documented that learning occurs all the time, every day, and in every space imaginable, both formal and informal (Leander, Phillips, & Taylor, 2010), and in ways that span strictly defined setting boundaries (Engeström, Engeström, & Kärkkäinen, 1995). DBR may take place in any number of contexts, based on the types of questions asked, and the learning theories and processes that a researcher may be interested in exploring. DBR may involve one-to-one tutoring and learning settings, single classrooms, community spaces, entire institutions, or even holistically designed ecologies (Design-Based Research Collective, 2003; Engeström, 2008; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013). In all these cases, even the most completely designed experimental ecology, the setting remains naturalistic and situated because DBR actively embraces the uncontrollable variables that participants bring with them to the learning process for and from their situated worlds, lives, and experiences—no effort is made to control for these complicated influences of life, simply to understand how they operate in a given ecology as innovation is attempted. Thus, the extent of the design reflects a broader range of qualitative and theoretical study, rather than an attempt to control or isolate some particular learning process from outside influence.

While there is much variety in what design may entail, where DBR takes place, what types of learning ecologies are under examination, and what methods are used, situated ecologies are always the setting of this work. In this way, conscious of naturalistic variables, and the influences that culture, historicity, participation, and context have on learning, researchers can use DBR to build on prior research, and extend knowledge around the learning that occurs in the complexity of situated contexts and lived practices (Collins et al., 2004).

Design based research is iterative; it changes, grows, and evolves to meet the needs and emergent questions of the context, and this tinkering process is part of the research

The final shared element undergirding models of DBR is that it is an iterative, active, and interventionist process, interested in and focused on producing educational innovation by actually and actively putting design innovations into practice (Brown, 1992, Collins, 1992; Gutiérrez, 2008). Given this interventionist, active stance, tinkering with the design and the theory of learning informing the design is as much a part of the research process as the outcome of the intervention or innovation itself—we learn what impacts learning as much, if not more, than we learn what was learned. In this sense, DBR involves a focus on analyzing the theory-driven design itself, and its implementation as an object of study (Edelson, 2002; Penuel, Fishman, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2011), and is ultimately interested in the improvement of the design—of how it unfolds, how it shifts, how it is modified, and made to function productively for participants in their contexts and given their needs (Kirshner & Polman, 2013).

While DBR is iterative and contextual as a foundational methodological principle, what this means varies across conceptions of DBR. For instance, in more traditional models, Brown and Campione (1996) pointed out the dangers of “lethal mutation” in which a design, introduced into a context, may become so warped by the influence, pressures, incomplete implementation, or misunderstanding of participants in the local context, that it no longer reflects or tests the theory under study. In short, a theory-driven intervention may be put in place, and then subsumed to such a degree by participants based on their understanding and needs, that it remains the original innovative design in name alone. The assertion here is that in these cases, the research ceases to be DBR in the sense that the design is no longer central, actively shaping learning. We cannot, they argue, analyze a design—and the theory it was meant to reflect—as an object of study when it has been “mutated,” and it is merely a banner under which participants are enacting their idiosyncratic, pragmatic needs.

While the ways in which settings and individuals might disrupt designs intended to produce robust learning is certainly a tension to be cautious of in DBR, it is also worth noting that in many critical approaches to DBR, such mutations—whether “lethal” to the original design or not—are seen as compelling and important moments. Here, where collaboration and community input is more central to the design process, iterative is understood differently. Thus, a “mutation” becomes a point where reflexivity, tension, and contradiction might open the door for change, for new designs, for reconsiderations of researcher and collaborative partner positionalities, or for ethnographic exploration into how a context takes up, shapes, and ultimately engages innovations in a particular sociocultural setting. In short, accounting for and documenting changes in design is a vital part of the DBR process, allowing researchers to respond to context in a variety of ways, always striving for their theories and designs to act with humility, and in the interest of usefulness.

With this in mind, the iterative nature of DBR means that the relationships researchers have with other design partners (educators and learners) in the ecology are incredibly important, and vital to consider (Bang et al., 2016; Engeström, 2007; Engeström, Sannino, & Virkkunen, 2014). Different iterations of DBR might occur in ways in which the researcher is more or less intimately involved in the design and implementation process, both in terms of actual presence and intellectual ownership of the design. Regarding the former, in some cases, a researcher may hand a design off to others to implement, periodically studying and modifying it, while in other contexts or designs, the researcher may be actively involved, tinkering in every detail of the implementation and enactment of the design. With regard to the latter, DBR might similarly range from a somewhat prescribed model, in which the researcher is responsible for the original design, and any modifications that may occur based on their analyses, without significant input from participants (e.g., Collins et al., 2004), to incredibly participatory models, in which all parties (researchers, educators, learners) are part of each step of the design-creation, modification, and research process (e.g., Bang, Faber, Gurneau, Marin, & Soto, 2016; Kirshner, 2015).

Considering the wide range of ideological approaches and models for DBR, we might acknowledge that DBR can be gainfully conducted through many iterations of “openness” to the design process. However, the strength of the research—focused on analyzing the design itself as a unit of study reflective of learning theory—will be bolstered by thoughtfully accounting for how involved the researcher will be, and how open to participation the modification process is. These answers should match the types of questions, and conceptual or ideological framing, with which researchers approach DBR, allowing them to tinker with the process of learning as they build on prior research to extend knowledge and test theory (Barab & Kirshner, 2001), while thoughtfully documenting these changes in the design as they go.

Implementation and Research Design

As with the overarching principles of design-based research (DBR), even amid the pluralism of conceptual frameworks of DBR researchers, it is possible, and useful, to trace the shared contours in how DBR research design is implemented. Though texts provide particular road maps for undertaking various iterations of DBR consistent with the specific goals, types of questions, and ideological orientations of these scholarly communities (e.g., Cole & Engeström, 2007; Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004; Fishman, Penuel, Allen, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2013; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013), certain elements, realized differently, can be found across all of these models, and may be encapsulated in five broad methodological phases.

Considering the Design Focus

DBR begins by considering what the focus of the design, the situated context, and the units of analysis for research will be. Prospective DBR researchers will need to consider broader research in regard to the “grand” theory of learning with which they work to determine what theoretical questions they have, or identify “intermediate” aspects of the theories that might be studied and strengthened by a design process in situated contexts, and what planes of analysis (Rogoff, 1995) will be most suitable for examination. This process allows for the identification of the critical theoretical elements of a design, and articulation of initial research questions.

Given the conceptual framework, theoretical and research questions, and sociopolitical interests at play, researchers may undertake this, and subsequent steps in the process, on their own, or in close collaboration with the communities and individuals in the situated contexts in which the design will unfold. As such, across iterations of DBR, and with respect to the ways DBR researchers choose to engage with communities, the origin of the design will vary, and might begin in some cases with theoretical questions, or arise in others as a problem of practice (Coburn & Penuel, 2016), though as has been noted, in either case, theory and practice are necessarily linked in the research.

Creating and Implementing a Designed Innovation

From the consideration and identification of the critical elements, planned units of analysis, and research questions that will drive a design, researchers can then actively create (either on their own or in conjunction with potential design partners) a designed intervention reflecting these critical elements, and the overarching theory.

Here, the DBR researcher should consider what partners exist in the process and what ownership exists around these partnerships, determine exactly what the pragmatic features of the intervention/design will be and who will be responsible for them, and consider when checkpoints for modification and evaluation will be undertaken, and by whom. Additionally, researchers should at this stage consider questions of timeline and of recruiting participants, as well as what research materials will be needed to adequately document the design, its implementation, and its outcomes, and how and where collected data will be stored.

Once a design (the planned, theory-informed innovative intervention) has been produced, the DBR researcher and partners can begin the implementation process, putting the design into place and beginning data collection and documentation.

Assessing the Impact of the Design on the Learning Ecology

Chronologically, the next two methodological steps happen recursively in the iterative process of DBR. The researcher must assess the impact of the design, and then, make modifications as necessary, before continuing to assess the impact of these modifications. In short, these next two steps are a cycle that continues across the life and length of the research design.

Once a design has been created and implemented, the researcher begins to observe and document the learning, the ecology, and the design itself. Guided by and in conversation with the theory and critical elements, the researcher should periodically engage in ongoing data analysis, assessing the success of the design, and of learning, paying equal attention to the design itself, and how its implementation is working in the situated ecology.

Within the realm of qualitative research, measuring or assessing variables of learning and assessing the design may look vastly different, require vastly different data-collection and data-analysis tools, and involve vastly different research methods among different researchers.

Modifying the Design

Modification, based on ongoing assessment of the design, is what makes DBR iterative, helping the researcher extend the field’s knowledge about the theory, design, learning, and the context under examination.

Modification of the design can take many forms, from complete changes in approach or curriculum, to introducing an additional tool or mediating artifact into a learning ecology. Moreover, how modification unfolds involves careful reflection from the researcher and any co-designing participants, deciding whether modification will be an ongoing, reflexive, tinkering process, or if it will occur only at predefined checkpoints, after formal evaluation and assessment. Questions of ownership, issues of resource availability, technical support, feasibility, and communication are all central to the work of design modification, and answers will vary given the research questions, design parameters, and researchers’ epistemic commitments.

Each moment of modification indicates a new phase in a DBR project, and a new round of assessing—through data analysis—the impact of the design on the learning ecology, either to guide continued or further modification, report the results of the design, or in some cases, both.

Reporting the Results of the Design

The final step in DBR methodology is to report on the results of the designed intervention, how it contributed to understandings of theory, and how it impacted the local learning ecology or context. The format, genre, and final data analysis methods used in reporting data and research results will vary across iterations of DBR. However, it is largely understood that to avoid methodological confusion, DBR researchers should clearly situate themselves in the DBR paradigm by clearly describing and detailing the design itself; articulating the theory, central elements, and units of analysis under scrutiny, what modifications occurred and what precipitated these changes, and what local effects were observed; and exploring any potential contributions to learning theory, while accounting for the context and their interventionist role and positionality in the design. As such, careful documentation of pragmatic and design decisions for retrospective data analysis, as well as research findings, should be done at each stage of this implementation process.

Methodological Issues in the Design-Based Research Paradigm

Because of its pluralistic nature, its interventionist, nontraditional stance, and the fact that it remains in its conceptual infancy, design-based research (DBR) is replete with ongoing methodological questions and challenges, both from external and internal sources. While there are many more that may exist, addressed will be several of the most pressing the prospective DBR researcher may encounter, or want to consider in understanding the paradigm and beginning a research design.

Challenges to Rigor and Validity

Perhaps the place to begin this reflection on tensions in the DBR paradigm is the recurrent and ongoing challenge to the rigor and validity of DBR, which has asked: Is DBR research at all? Given the interventionist and activist way in which DBR invites the researcher to participate, and the shift in orientation from long-accepted research paradigms, such critiques are hardly surprising, and fall in line with broader challenges to the rigor and objectivity of qualitative social science research in general. Historically, such complaints about DBR are linked to decades of critique of any research that does not adhere to the post-positivist approach set out as the U.S. Department of Education began to prioritize laboratory and large-scale randomized control-trial experimentation as the “gold standard” of research design (e.g., Mosteller & Boruch, 2002).

From the outset, DBR, as an interventionist, local, situated, non-laboratory methodology, was bound to run afoul of such conservative trends. While some researchers involved in (particularly traditional developmental and cognitive) DBR have found broader acceptance within these constraints, the rigor of DBR remains contested. It has been suggested that DBR is under-theorized and over-methologized, a haphazard way for researchers to do activist work without engaging in the development of robust knowledge claims about learning (Dede, 2004), and an approach lacking in coherence that sheltered interventionist projects of little impact to developing learning theory and allowed researchers to make subjective, pet claims through selective analysis of large bodies of collected data (Kelly, 2003, 2004).

These critiques, however, impose an external set of criteria on DBR, desiring it to fit into the molds of rigor and coherence as defined by canonical methodologies. Bell (2004) and Bang and Vossoughi (2016) have made compelling cases for the wide variety of methods and approaches present in DBR not as a fracturing, but as a generative proliferation of different iterations that can offer powerful insights around the different types of questions that exist about learning in the infinitely diverse settings in which it occurs. Essentially, researchers have argued that within the DBR paradigm, and indeed within educational research more generally, the practical impact of research on learning, context, and practices should be a necessary component of rigor (Gutiérrez & Penuel, 2014), and the pluralism of methods and approaches available in DBR ensures that the practical impacts and needs of the varied contexts in which the research takes place will always drive the design and research tools.

These moves are emblematic of the way in which DBR is innovating and pushing on paradigms of rigor in educational research altogether, reflecting how DBR fills a complementary niche with respect to other methodologies and attends to elements and challenges of learning in lived, real environments that other types of research have consistently and historically missed. Beyond this, Brown (1992) was conscious of the concerns around data collection, validity, rigor, and objectivity from the outset, identifying this dilemma—the likelihood of having an incredible amount of data collected in a design only a small fraction of which can be reported and shared, thus leading potentially to selective data analysis and use—as the Bartlett Effect (Brown, 1992). Since that time, DBR researchers have been aware of this challenge, actively seeking ways to mitigate this threat to validity by making data sets broadly available, documenting their design, tinkering, and modification processes, clearly situating and describing disconfirming evidence and their own position in the research, and otherwise presenting the broad scope of human and learning activity that occurs within designs in large learning ecologies as comprehensively as possible.

Ultimately, however, these responses are likely to always be insufficient as evidence of rigor to some, for the root dilemma is around what “counts” as education science. While researchers interested and engaged in DBR ought rightly to continue to push themselves to ensure the methodological rigor of their work and chosen methods, it is also worth noting that DBR should seek to hold itself to its own criteria of assessment. This reflects broader trends in qualitative educational research that push back on narrow constructions of what “counts” as science, recognizing the ways in which new methodologies and approaches to research can help us examine aspects of learning, culture, and equity that have continued to be blind spots for traditional education research; invite new voices and perspectives into the process of achieving rigor and validity (Erickson & Gutiérrez, 2002); bolster objectivity by bringing it into conversation with the positionality of the researcher (Harding, 1993); and perhaps most important, engage in axiological innovation (Bang, Faber, Gurneau, Marin, & Soto, 2016), or the exploration of and design for what is, “good right, true, and beautiful . . . in cultural ecologies” (p. 2).

Questions of Generalizability and Usefulness

The generalizability of research results in DBR has been an ongoing and contentious issue in the development of the paradigm. Indeed, by the standards of canonical methods (e.g., laboratory experimentation, ethnography), these local, situated interventions should lack generalizability. While there is reason to discuss and question the merit of generalizability as a goal of qualitative research at all, researchers in the DBR paradigm have long been conscious of this issue. Understanding the question of generalizability around DBR, and how the paradigm has responded to it, can be done in two ways.

First, by distinguishing questions specific to a particular design from the generalizability of the theory. Cole’s (Cole & Underwood, 2013) 5th Dimension work, and the nationwide network of linked, theoretically similar sites, operating nationwide with vastly different designs, is a powerful example of this approach to generalizability. Rather than focus on a single, unitary, potentially generalizable design, the project is more interested in variability and sustainability of designs across local contexts (e.g., Cole, 1995; Gutiérrez, Bien, Selland, & Pierce, 2011; Jurow, Tracy, Hotchkiss, & Kirshner, 2012). Through attention to sustainable, locally effective innovations, conscious of the wide variation in culture and context that accompanies any and all learning processes, 5th Dimension sites each derive their idiosyncratic structures from sociocultural theory, sharing some elements, but varying others, while seeking their own “ontological innovations” based on the affordances of their contexts. This pattern reflects a key element of much of the DBR paradigm: that questions of generalizability in DBR may be about the generalizability of the theory of learning, and the variability of learning and design in distinct contexts, rather than the particular design itself.

A second means of addressing generalizability in DBR has been to embrace the pragmatic impacts of designing innovations. This response stems from Messick (1992) and Schoenfeld’s (1992) arguments early on in the development of DBR that the consequentialness and validity of DBR efforts as potentially generalizable research depend on the “usefulness” of the theories and designs that emerge. Effectively, because DBR is the examination of situated theory, a design must be able to show pragmatic impact—it must succeed at showing the theory to be useful. If there is evidence of usefulness to both the context in which it takes place, and the field of educational research more broadly, then the DBR researcher can stake some broader knowledge claims that might be generalizable. As a result, the DBR paradigm tends to “treat changes in [local] contexts as necessary evidence for the viability of a theory” (Barab & Squire, 2004, p. 6). This of course does not mean that DBR is only interested in successful efforts. A design that fails or struggles can provide important information and knowledge to the field. Ultimately, though, DBR tends to privilege work that proves the usefulness of designs, whose pragmatic or theoretical findings can then be generalized within the learning science and education research fields.

With this said, the question of usefulness is not always straightforward, and is hardly unitary. While many DBR efforts—particularly those situated in developmental and cognitive learning science traditions—are interested in the generalizability of their useful educational designs (Barab & Squire, 2004; Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, & Schauble, 2003; Joseph, 2004; Steffe & Thompson, 2000), not all are. Critical DBR researchers have noted that if usefulness remains situated in the extant sociopolitical and sociocultural power-structures—dominant conceptual and popular definitions of what useful educational outcomes are—the result will be a bar for research merit that inexorably bends toward the positivist spectrum (Booker & Goldman, 2016; Dominguez, 2015; Zavala, 2016). This could potentially, and likely, result in excluding the non-normative interventions and innovations that are vital for historically marginalized communities, but which might have vastly different-looking outcomes, that are nonetheless useful in the sociopolitical context they occur in. Alternative framings to this idea of usefulness push on and extend the intention, and seek to involve the perspectives and agency of situated community partners and their practices in what “counts” as generative and rigorous research outcomes (Gutiérrez & Penuel, 2014). An example in this regard is the idea of consequential knowledge (Hall & Jurow, 2015; Jurow & Shea, 2015), which suggests outcomes that are consequential will be taken up by participants in and across their networks, and over-time—thus a goal of consequential knowledge certainly meets the standard of being useful, but it also implicates the needs and agency of communities in determining the success and merit of a design or research endeavor in important ways that strict usefulness may miss.

Thus, the bar of usefulness that characterizes the DBR paradigm should not be approached without critical reflection. Certainly designs that accomplish little for local contexts should be subject to intense questioning and critique, but considering the sociopolitical and systemic factors that might influence what “counts” as useful in local contexts and education science more generally, should be kept firmly in mind when designing, choosing methods, and evaluating impacts (Zavala, 2016). Researchers should think deeply about their goals, whether they are reaching for generalizability at all, and in what ways they are constructing contextual definitions of success, and be clear about these ideologically influenced answers in their work, such that generalizability and the usefulness of designs can be adjudicated based on and in conversation with the intentions and conceptual framework of the research and researcher.

Ethical Concerns of Sustainability, Participation, and Telos

While there are many external challenges to rigor and validity of DBR, another set of tensions comes from within the DBR paradigm itself. Rather than concerns about rigor or validity, these internal critiques are not unrelated to the earlier question of the contested definition of usefulness, and more accurately reflect questions of research ethics and grow from ideological concerns with how an intentional, interventionist stance is taken up in research as it interacts with situated communities.

Given that the nature of DBR is to design and implement some form of educational innovation, the DBR researcher will in some way be engaging with an individual or community, becoming part of a situated learning ecology, complete with a sociopolitical and cultural history. As with any research that involves providing an intervention or support, the question of what happens when the research ends is as much an ethical as a methodological one. Concerns then arise given how traditional models of DBR seem intensely focused on creating and implementing a “complete” cycle of design, but giving little attention to what happens to the community and context afterward (Engeström, 2011). In contrast to this privileging of “completeness,” sociocultural and critical approaches to DBR have suggested that if research is actually happening in naturalistic, situated contexts that authentically recognize and allow social and cultural dimensions to function (i.e., avoid laboratory-type controls to mitigate independent variables), there can never be such a thing as “complete,” for the design will, and should, live on as part of the ecology of the space (Cole, 2007; Engeström, 2000). Essentially, these internal critiques push DBR to consider sustainability, and sustainable scale, as equally important concerns to the completeness of an innovation. Not only are ethical questions involved, but accounting for the unbounded and ongoing nature of learning as a social and cultural activity can help strengthen the viability of knowledge claims made, and what degree of generalizability is reasonably justified.

Related to this question of sustainability are internal concerns regarding the nature and ethics of participation in DBR, whether partners in a design are being adequately invited to engage in the design and modification processes that will unfold in their situated contexts and lived communities (Bang et al., 2016; Engeström, 2011). DBR has actively sought to examine multiple planes of analysis in learning that might be occurring in a learning ecology but has rarely attended to the subject-subject dynamics (Bang et al., 2016), or “relational equity” (DiGiacomo & Gutiérrez, 2015) that exists between researchers and participants as a point of focus. Participatory design research (PDR) (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016) models have recently emerged as a way to better attend to these important dimensions of collective participation (Engeström, 2007), power (Vakil et al., 2016), positionality (Kirshner, 2015), and relational agency (Edwards, 2007, 2009; Sannino & Engeström, 2016) as they unfold in DBR.

Both of these ethical questions—around sustainability and participation—reflect challenges to what we might call the telos—or direction—that DBR takes to innovation and research. These are questions related to whose voices are privileged, in what ways, for what purposes, and toward what ends. While DBR, like many other forms of educational research, has involved work with historically marginalized communities, it has, like many other forms of educational research, not always done so in humanizing ways. Put another way, there are ethical and political questions surrounding whether the designs, goals, and standards of usefulness we apply to DBR efforts should be purposefully activist, and have explicitly liberatory ends. To this point, critical and decolonial perspectives have pushed on the DBR paradigm, suggesting that DBR should situate itself as being a space of liberatory innovation and potential, in which communities and participants can become designers and innovators of their own futures (Gutiérrez, 2005). This perspective is reflected in the social design experiment (SDE) approach to DBR (Gutiérrez, 2005, 2008; Gutierréz & Vossoughi, 2010; Gutiérrez, 2016; Gutiérrez & Jurow, 2016), which begins in participatory fashion, engaging a community in identifying its own challenges and desires, and reflecting on the historicity of learning practices, before proleptic design efforts are undertaken that ensure that research is done with, not on, communities of color (Arzubiaga, Artiles, King, & Harris-Murri, 2008), and intentionally focused on liberatory goals.

Global Perspectives and Unique Iterations

While design-based research (DBR) has been a methodology principally associated with educational research in the United States, its development is hardly limited to the U.S. context. Rather, while DBR emerged in U.S. settings, similar methods of situated, interventionist research focused on design and innovation were emerging in parallel in European contexts (e.g., Gravemeijer, 1994), most significantly in the work of Vygotskian scholars both in Europe and the United States (Cole, 1995; Cole & Engeström, 1993, 2007; Engeström, 1987).

Particularly, where DBR began in the epistemic and ontological terrain of developmental and cognitive psychology, this vein of design-based research work began deeply grounded in cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). This ontological and epistemic grounding meant that the approach to design that was taken was more intensively conscious of context, historicity, hybridity, and relational factors, and framed around understanding learning as a complex, collective activity system that, through design, could be modified and transformed (Cole & Engeström, 2007). The models of DBR that emerged in this context abroad were the formative intervention (Engeström, 2011; Engeström, Sannino, & Virkkunen, 2014), which relies heavily on Vygotskian double-stimulation to approach learning in nonlinear, unbounded ways, accounting for the role of learner, educator, and researcher in a collective process, shifting and evolving and tinkering with the design as the context needs and demands; and the Change Laboratory (Engeström, 2008; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013), which similarly relies on the principle of double stimulation, while presenting holistic way to approach transforming—or changing—entire learning activity systems in fundamental ways through designs that encourage collective “expansive learning” (Engeström, 2001), through which participants can produce wholly new activity systems as the object of learning itself.

Elsewhere in the United States, still parallel to the developmental- or cognitive-oriented DBR work that was occurring, American researchers employing CHAT began to leverage the tools and aims of expansive learning in conversation with the tensions and complexity of the U.S. context (Cole, 1995; Gutiérrez, 2005; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). Like the CHAT design research of the European context, there was a focus on activity systems, historicity, nonlinear and unbounded learning, and collective learning processes and outcomes. Rather than a simple replication, however, these researchers put further attention on questions of equity, diversity, and justice in this work, as Gutiérrez, Engeström, and Sannino (2016) note:

The American contribution to a cultural historical activity theoretic perspective has been its attention to diversity, including how we theorize, examine, and represent individuals and their communities. (p. 276)

Effectively, CHAT scholars in parts of the United States brought critical and decolonial perspectives to bear on their design-focused research, focusing explicitly on the complex cultural, racial, and ethnic terrain in which they worked, and ensuring that diversity, equity, justice, and non-dominant perspectives would become central principles to the types of design research conducted. The result was the emergence of the aforementioned social design experiments (e.g., Gutiérrez, 2005, 2016), and participatory design research (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016) models, which attend intentionally to historicity and relational equity, tailor their methods to the liberation of historically marginalized communities, aim intentionally for liberatory outcomes as key elements of their design processes, and seek to produce outcomes in which communities of learners become designers of new community futures (Gutiérrez, 2016). While these approaches emerged in the United States, their origins reflect ontological and ideological perspectives quite distinct from more traditional learning science models of DBR, and dominant U.S. ontologies in general. Indeed, these iterations of DBR are linked genealogically to the ontologies, ideologies, and concerns of peoples in the Global South, offering some promise for the method in those regions, though DBR has yet to broadly take hold among researchers beyond the United States and Europe.

There is, of course, much more nuance to these models, and each of these models (formative interventions, Change Laboratories, social design experiments, and participatory design research) might itself merit independent exploration and review well beyond the scope here. Indeed, there is some question as to whether all adherents of these CHAT design-based methodologies, with their unique genealogies and histories, would even consider themselves under the umbrella of DBR. Yet, despite significant ontological divergences, these iterations share many of the same foundational tenets of the traditional models (though realized differently), and it is reasonable to argue that they do indeed share the same, broad methodological paradigm (DBR), or at the very least, are so intimately related that any discussion of DBR, particularly one with a global view, should consider the contributions CHAT iterations have made to the DBR methodology in the course of their somewhat distinct, but parallel, development.

Possibilities and Potentials for Design-Based Research

Since its emergence in 1992, the DBR methodology for educational research has continued to grow in popularity, ubiquity, and significance. Its use has begun to expand beyond the confines of the learning sciences, taken up by researchers in a variety of disciplines, and across a breadth of theoretical and intellectual traditions. While still not as widely recognized as more traditional and well-established research methodologies, DBR as a methodology for rigorous research is unquestionably here to stay.

With this in mind, the field ought to still be cautious of the ways in which the discourse of design is used. Not all design is DBR, and preserving the integrity, rigor, and research ethics of the paradigm (on its own terms) will continue to require thoughtful reflection as its pluralistic parameters come into clearer focus. Yet the proliferation of methods in the DBR paradigm should be seen as a positive. There are far too many theories of learning and ideological perspectives that have meaningful contributions to make to our knowledge of the world, communities, and learning to limit ourselves to a unitary approach to DBR, or set of methods. The paradigm has shown itself to have some core methodological principles, but there is no reason not to expect these to grow, expand, and evolve over time.

In an increasingly globalized, culturally diverse, and dynamic world, there is tremendous potential for innovation couched in this proliferation of DBR. Particularly in historically marginalized communities and across the Global South, we will need to know how learning theories can be lived out in productive ways in communities that have been understudied, and under-engaged. The DBR paradigm generally, and critical and CHAT iterations particularly, can fill an important need for participatory, theory-developing research in these contexts that simultaneously creates lived impacts. Participatory design research (PDR), social design experiments (SDE), and Change Laboratory models of DBR should be of particular interest and attention moving forward, as current trends toward culturally sustaining pedagogies and learning will need to be explored in depth and in close collaboration with communities, as participatory design partners, in the press toward liberatory educational innovations.


The following special issues of journals are encouraged starting points for engaging more deeply with current and past trends in design-based research.

  • Bang, M., & Vossoughi, S. (Eds.). (2016). Participatory design research and educational justice: Studying learning and relations within social change making [Special issue]. Cognition and Instruction, 34(3).
  • Barab, S. (Ed.). (2004). Design-based research [Special issue]. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1).
  • Cole, M., & The Distributed Literacy Consortium. (2006). The Fifth Dimension: An after-school program built on diversity. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Kelly, A. E. (Ed.). (2003). Special issue on the role of design in educational research [Special issue]. Educational Researcher, 32(1).


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  • 1. The reader should note the emergence of critical ethnography (e.g., Carspecken, 1996; Fine, 1994), and other more participatory models of ethnography that deviated from this traditional paradigm during this same time period. These new forms of ethnography comprised part of the genealogy of the more critical approaches to DBR, described later in this article.

  • 2. The reader will also note that the adjective “qualitative” largely drops away from the acronym “DBR.” This is largely because, as described, DBR, as an exploration of naturalistic ecologies with multitudes of variables, and social and learning dynamics, necessarily demands a move beyond what can be captured by quantitative measurement alone. The qualitative nature of the research is thus implied and embedded as part of what makes DBR a unique and distinct methodology.