Design learning is more than a passing trend in education. Discover what it is and how to effectively integrate it into your classroom.

Doris Wells-Papanek of published an article in “Innovation Journal” in which she said “Design is to doing as learning is to thinking.” Learning, Wells-Papnek explains, prepares students to think, and design enables them to do. The goal of design learning is to help students become great problem solvers as they progress through the steps of the design learning framework, challenged to be creative but mindful of the task put before them.


design learningEverybody likes to have fun, yet fun is often missing from our schools. The first step in design learning is to begin with a fun exercise that makes the student curious about the subject. Think of a game of Jeopardy with students in teams attempting to answer questions associated with a chemical reaction, including identifying chemical symbols, lab safety skills, and math skills required to do the experiment. The teacher can use the students’ performance in the game to assess what they know, and give them a “final Jeopardy” question or two to ponder. Students explore a problem, learn the basics associated with it, and also connect it to things they have learned or experienced before.


In this next step of design learning, students take the problem presented to them and begin considering questions that will lead them to developing a solution. After studying and discussing the problem, the students are guided to choose a way to design an answer, either through math or technology or a combination of methods. Back to that chemistry problem … students may consider its effect on the air quality or another related area they are interested in, find everyday products they can reuse for testing and design, get more information from research or talking to an expert in the field, and describe what they have learned so far.


design learningBrainstorming among the students takes place in this design learning step as they try to come up with several creative new design solutions for their problem. They can then set forth three or four definite ideas based on what they have learned. Their teacher can again test them on their progress and determine if they are applying the skills they have developed and the concepts they are learning. Any errors in judgment or thought, lack of knowledge, or mistaken beliefs can be identified. At this point, students can proceed with a plan of action, detailing what they can use, how to achieve the solution, and what they expect the outcome to be.


Nearing the completion of their task, students must demonstrate their new design and how it will solve the problem. From several ideas that they have formulated, students can make the necessary adjustments and apply their knowledge to narrow down their choice to the best design. In this design learning step, students can demonstrate their solution to the problem through a written account of their journey from beginning to end. Production of a video can also be added to share their learning experience.


Instructors can assist students in this last phase of the design learning framework in assessing their understanding of the final solution, comparing it to what they knew at the initial phase and how they have applied what was learned throughout the process. Students can discuss how their design might be used in other ways or in reaching an understanding of a different problem. A final grade is given following this evaluation.

Design learning starts students on the path to thinking and then doing — tackling a problem and finding the solution. It is a framework that can begin in school and prepare students for future career challenges.

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