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Building Educational Bridges:
from Life to Design to Science, and back into Life

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.

1 — Building Bridges from Life to Design

Past, Present, Future:  Because design "includes almost everything we do` in life," students have used design thinking in the past, and in the future they will continue using it.  Therefore, teachers can use design to make a concrete connection with students’ past (in a bridge from design-in-life to design-in-school) and their future (in a bridge from design-in-school to design-in-life outside school), to improve transfers and motivations.


Transfers of Learning — from Life to School to Life

Students have used design-thinking in their everyday lives (and in previous schoolwork) so we can build on the foundation of skills they already know, consistent with constructivist theories of learning.  In school we want students to transfer their current skills with design-thinking, developed in the past, into design activities that let them improve their skills and find new ways to apply them, with transfer, in many subjects across a wide-spiral curriculum.  Then they can transfer their improved design skills into life-activities outside school.


Motivations for Learning  (in the Present)

Learning from the Past:  A simple model of Design Process, with a two-step cycle of creatively generating ideas and critically evaluating ideas, lets students recognize the design thinking they have been using in everyday life.  When students realize that during design they are using skills they already know, this familiarity will help reduce emotional obstacles to learning.  Instead of feeling “I can't do this” they will think “I have done this before (during design-in-life), so I can do it again (for design-in-school).”

Learning for the Future:  By using examples to show the wide scope of design, a teacher can help students imagine how design skills will be useful in “real life” outside the classroom, both now and in their future.  If students are convinced that the problem-solving skills they are learning will transfer from design-in-school to design-in-life, they will invest extra mental effort to improve these skills.  They will pursue Learning for Life with Personal Education to improve their ideas-and-skills knowledge, because they are motivated by a forward-looking expectation that what they are learning now will be personally useful in their future, that it will improve their lives by helping them achieve their own goals for life.



2 — Building Bridges from Design to Science


We should build bridges between design and science in both directions, from design to science (the benefits of doing this are explained below) and from science to design (this also works well, especially for teachers who already have been teaching the process of science).


What are the benefits of teaching design before science?  As a concept, Scientific Method (Science Process) is more familiar than Design Process.  But as an activity, design is more familiar for most students, in what they have experienced in the past and what they can imagine for the future.  This familiarity should improve transfer and motivation when we build educational bridges from life to design, as explained above`.  These bridges offer an additional benefit because they let students make another move, from their experiences in everyday life to experiences of science, in two stages:

1. build a bridge from life to design, and

2. build a bridge from design to science.


In the second step — if we teach science after design (and alternating with design & mixed with design) — we can build strong bridges from design to science (and vice versa) because, as explained in Science and Design, science is a special type of design.  It can be useful to think about two types of design:

• in general design {which includes engineering} the objective is to design a product, activity, or strategy;

• in science-design {in science} the objectives are to design experiments (so we can make observations that improve our knowledge about nature) and design theories (so we can improve our understanding of nature).


If science is design, how does this help us build bridges from design to science, and from Design Process to Science Process?

Process and Transfer:  Science is one type of Design, so Science Process can be described within the framework of Design Process.  Similar problem-solving methods are used for general design (which is called "design" in the rest of this page) and science.  When students learn design before science, during their design experiences (when they do the thinking-and-actions of Design Process) they already have used most of the skills they will be using in science (when they do Science Process), so we should expect a significant transfer of learning from design to science and (by alternating & mixing activities) from science to design.

Transfer and Confidence:  Science has an undeserved reputation for being strange and difficult.  But when the first bridge (from life to design) is followed by a second bridge (from design to science), students can think "I have done this before [in life and design], so I can do it again [in science]."  When students do science they will be using familiar skills, not learning something new and different.

Cognitive and Affective:  Experience with design-learning promotes better science-learning, with transfer and confidence that are overlapping and mutually supportive:  transfer is a mental/cognitive benefit, and confidence is an associated emotional/affective benefit. 

Emotional Transfer of Intention to Enjoy:  In another emotional benefit that improves motivation, if students have enjoyed their experiences in design, and we explain why science is similar, they will look forward to science experiences.    The Joy of Thinking in Design & Science

Cognitive Transfer and Building Bridges:  During activities in general design, a teacher can help students understand the logic of science by finding appropriate times to ask a science question — “when your theory-based Predictions and reality-based Observations are compared, do they match?” — in a Reality Check (Theory Check) that is the logical foundation of science.  Explaining why this is “the essence of scientific logic” will help students understand Science Process, and will help teachers build a bridge from design to science, because both use Reality Checks.  A similar bridging can be done for the many other skills that are used in both design and science;  these overlaps will help students learn Science Process more easily, in a transfer of skills from design to science.



Design-and-Science in Curriculum & Instruction


Design-and-Science:  We can teach design before science (and after science), and alternating with science, and mixed with science.

before science:  In a progression from general design to science, we begin by teaching the process of thinking used in design — which is possible in all subjects across a wide-spiral curriculum — and then move into the closely related thinking used in science.

after science:  Although I recommend teaching Design Process before Science Process, experiences with design and science can occur in any order.  Students have done design in life and school, but often this hasn't been labeled "design".  Most students have done activities labeled "science", and their "science experiences" will help them learn Design Process more easily, with a transfer of learning.  And if you already have been teaching principles of Science Process (i.e. scientific methods of thinking-and-action), this will help students learn principles of Design Process.

alternating with science:  After science is introduced, we can alternate science-inquiry activities & design-inquiry activities, and other types of instruction.

mixed with science:  We can show the mixing-and-overlapping that occurs when “science thinking” is used in a design project, and “design thinking” is used in a science project.

Transfers of Learning:  During initial learning of Design Process & Science Process, and in alternating-and-mixing, there will be transfers in both directions, from science to design and from design to science.


Ideas and Skills:  Building bridges from general design to science, and from Design Process to Science Process, should help students understand science in two ways, as a coherent system of concept-ideas (formed by organizing the conclusions of modern science) and a coherent system of process-skills (used to develop the conclusions).  We can help students understand how these ideas and skills are connected, how the Conceptual Knowledge of science is developed through its question-asking/answering process of Procedural Knowledge.    {more about Ideas-and-Skills}

Preparation:  Design Process emphasizes the importance, in design and science, of the preparation (mainly to improve conceptual knowledge) that is an essential foundation for all other modes of thinking-and-action in a process of design.

Similarities and Differences:  When students compare general design with science, and compare Design Process with Science Process, their analyses will help them understand the many similarities and also the differences between design and science, and between various types of design, and types of science.  The similarities point to opportunities for transfer.  The differences help us appreciate their unique characteristics.    {more about similarities and differences between Design and Science}

Design in Science Education:  The new K-12 Science Education Standards for 2012 emphasize the importance of learning Scientific and Engineering Practices.  Teaching with design-to-science bridges can help students learn the practices (the ideas, thinking skills, and thinking processes) used in science & engineering, in Science Process & Engineering Design Process.  Similar educational benefits can occur at the college level.



3 — Building Bridges from Design-and-Science back into Life

Using the Skills of Design:  We use design-thinking for almost everything in life.  This wide scope can help students increase their transfers of learning — from life into school, across a wide range of subjects, and back into life in their careers and everyday activities — and improve their motivations to learn, as explained in 1. Building Bridges from Life to Design.

Using the Skills of Science:  The logical methods of science also span a wide range, because similar logic (to evaluate, infer, and persuade) is used in science, in other fields, and in daily life, whenever someone makes a claim — regarding a current event or historical event, guilt of a defendant, phenomenon in nature, operation of a car, philosophical view of ethics, literary analysis,... — and we ask “what is the evidence-and-logic supporting this claim?”

Due to these overlaps, teachers can combine instruction activities in scientific reasoning and critical thinking.  For example, a class could analyze arguments that involve fallacies of various types;  evaluate (or generate & evaluate) pro-and-con arguments in a debate about scientific or non-scientific issues;  and many other fascinating activities are possible.


Science encourages a logically appropriate humility, with a confidence that is not too little, not too much.  This is useful in all of life, and is described by Bertrand Russell:

Error is not only the absolute error of believing what is false, but also the quantitative error of believing more or less strongly than is warranted by the degree of credibility properly attaching to the proposition believed, in relation to the believer's knowledge.