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Teaching Design Process — Why?

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.


WHY should we teach Design Process?

If we use Design Process (which includes Science Process) to teach problem-solving skills & strategies, will it help students improve their abilities in problem solving and learning?  My confident answer is “yes”, so I’m developing this website to explain reasons for WHY to teach Design Process, and strategies for HOW to teach it.


But this confidence is balanced with humility, because:  my claims have not been tested in classrooms to allow observation of results;  and generally we need more research to observe the effectiveness of instruction (of various types) in helping students learn ideas-and-skills (of various types);  and teachers have rational reasons to resist changes in their methods of teaching, especially when the educational objective is improved thinking skills.  Therefore, ...


I have a confidently optimistic humility about expected benefits, when making claims that Design Process could be very useful in education, so its possibilities are worth exploring and developing.

I'm optimistic because there are logical reasons to confidently conclude that teaching Design Process (and Science Process) will help students improve their creative-and-critical thinking skills, and the whole-process skills that let them effectively coordinate their thinking-and-actions (using Design Strategies) to form an effective problem-solving process for design and/or science, and also improve their understanding of the problem-solving process used in design & science, which is an important part of understanding the Nature of Design-and-Science.

These logical reasons will be described in five parts:  the beginning & ending (Parts 1 & 4) compare Design Process with other strategies for teaching inquiry, and between them are three clusters of related ideas, about

2. Motivation and Transfer

3a. Metacognitive Strategies

3b. Logical Organization.



1. Design Process is Old (similar) and New (distinctive)

Design Process is Inquiry:  A wide range of currently used inquiry activities (for design-inquiry and science-inquiry) also can be used for teaching Design Process, which is just a logically organized way to show the process of inquiry, so no new activities are required.  And strategies for teaching inquiry, already developed and used by many teachers, can be adapted for teaching Design Process.  Due to these close relationships between inquiry and Design Process, for instruction activities and teaching methods, in our designing of curriculum & instruction instead of “starting over” we can simply find ways to improve the synergistically supportive interactions between Design Process and other ways to teach inquiry so we can be more effective in helping students improve their skills in answering questions and solving problems.

Combining the best of Old and New:  This page ends by explaining that Design Process "is compatible with other approaches"* but is distinctive so it "offers special added value."



2. Building Educational Bridges to improve Motivation and Transfer

We use design-thinking for almost everything we do so students can do a variety of Design Activities, and learn principles of Design Process, in a Wide Spiral Curriculum spanning a wide range of subject areas, with coordination across areas (so it's Wide) and over time (in a progressive Spiral), building Educational Bridges from design-in-life to design-in-school, and between design & science, and from school back into life.  This wide-ranging design education offers benefits for motivation and transfer.


Motivation:  If students are persuaded, by their experience and by teachers, that the design-skills they are learning in school will transfer into life, they will have better Motivations for Learning in school, because they have a forward-looking expectation that the skills they are learning in school will improve their lives outside school, now and in the future.  They will want to "make things better" with a problem-solving attitude toward their Personal Education.  Some students will succeed in design activities (beyond their success in other school activities) which will improve their self-image and their motivation for schoolwork.  The wide scope of design allows a wide range of design activities, making it easier for teachers to find activities that are viewed as being “fun now and useful later” by students from a wide range of sociocultural backgrounds.  This flexibility of instructional applications will help design activities be useful in the culturally diverse, decentralized system of American education.


These motivational benefits are due to the wide scope of design and the intrinsic appeal of design activities, rather than Design Process.  But instruction that includes Design Process offers distinctive benefits not found in other models, for using Educational Bridges to build a Wide Spiral Curriculum (above) and for everything below, to improve transfers of learning, and help students develop their own "Design-Based Metacognitive Strategies for Learning" in Part 3, and use the cognitive advantages of "Logically Organized Procedural Knowledge" in Part 4.


Transfer:  If we show students — through their experiences in design activities, and their learning of design principles with Design Process — that a similar process of solving problems is used in a wide range of subject areas and in life, they will seek (and will find) transfers of design-skills between subject areas and into life with Transfers of Learning.

Design Process is especially useful for connecting science with engineering — for building bridges from design to science, and back to design — so Design Process can help students learn Scientific & Engineering Practices, which are emphasized (as one of 3 key "dimensions") in the new K-12 Standards for Science Education.



3a. Design-Based Metacognitive Strategies for Learning

Most scholars (psychologists, educators,...) agree that metacognition can improve the quality of learning, thinking, and performing in many ways, in a variety of contexts, especially when metacognition is well-regulated so it's optimal (so it's not too little, not too much, and of the right types at appropriate times) to achieve maximum benefits with minimum interference.

Design Process can help students improve their design-based use of cognition-and-metacognition in two related strategies, in their Strategies to Coordinate a Process of Design (by combining metacognitive awareness-of-process with Conditional Knowledge)* and their Strategies for Learning-and-Performing that include strategies to improve retention-and-transfer such as intentionally learning (for the future) and recalling (from the past).   /  Helping students improve their Conditional Knowledge might be the most important single benefit (among a large cluster of related benefits) when we teach Design Process.

Teachers can develop strategies for teaching that promote an intentional learning of design-thinking skills with a strategy for teaching using a Sequence of Activities that offers opportunities to gain experience (in design activities and with reflections on design-experiences) and learn principles (with Design Process), and motivates students so they want to learn because learning is part of their overall plan for self-improvement by Personal Education.

A simple application of logic — by reasoning that IF empirical evidence shows metacognition is educationally useful, and IF Design Process improves metacognition,* THEN Design Process is educationally useful — gives us a reason to expect that Design Process will be educationally useful, because each IF seems justified, to expect that students will learn more effectively when experience is supplemented with principles.    *This occurs in "two related strategies" and in other ways.


3b. Logically Organized Procedural Knowledge

Logical Organization:  Research shows that coherently organized conceptual knowledge improves understanding, recall/transfer, and expertise.  Similar benefits should arise from coherently organizing procedural knowledge as in Design Process, which shows the functional interactive relationships between different modes of design-thinking, logically integrating them into a coherently organized framework that is flexible (not rigid) so it can be used to promote flexible adaptive expertise.  Design Process will help students understand the integrated coordination of thinking skills within each design experience, and also the similarities between design experiences in different subject areas, to increase the transfer between areas.

Organization-and-Metacognition:  Parts 3a & 3b are closely related because if procedural knowledge is logically organized with Design Process, this organization can help students improve their cognitive/metacognitive thinking skills when they are using Design Process to develop-and-apply strategies for Coordinating a Process of Design and for Learning, Thinking, and Performing.

Verbal-and-Visual Instruction:  Research shows that a skillfully coordinated combination of verbal & visual instruction — which is a central feature of Design Process — is more effective for helping students learn.


Logical Connections between Design and Science:  As outlined above, General Design (used for designing products, strategies, or activities) and Science-Design (used for designing experiments & theories) are closely related but are not identical.  Why?  The main objectives in science are a designing of experiments (to increase our knowledge about nature) and a designing of theory-based explanatory models (to improve our understanding of nature), so science is a special type of design.  Therefore, we can use Design Process (which describes all Design, including both General Design and Science-Design) to describe a Science Process that emphasizes, and has developed to a high degree, some of the modes of thinking-and-action that are used in all types of design.  The close relationships between Design Process and Science Process let us build Educational Bridges from design to science (and vice versa), to increase transfers of learning.


As with metacognition in 3a, basic “if-and-if, then” logic — IF empirical evidence shows that skillfully organizing procedural knowledge is educationally useful, and IF Design Process is a way to skillfully organize procedural knowledge, THEN Design Process should be educationally useful — is a reason to expect that Design Process will be educationally useful.

These claims about metacognition/organization and Design Process, which are based on evidence and logic plus predictions, are explored more deeply in Experience plus Principles.



4. Similar yet Different, for Compatibility and Added Value

In comparisons of Design Process with other approaches to inquiry that help students learn thinking skills and thinking process, we find that Design Process is similar in many ways, so it's compatible with other approaches, in their sharing of similar instruction activities and teaching methods.*   But it's distinctive in some ways, so it offers special added value by clearly showing:

• the interactive relationships between modes of thinking-and-action within Design Process, in a logically organized framework

    using creatively designed verbal and verbal/visual representations of Design Process, and of Science Process;

    this logical organization can help students develop effective Strategies to Coordinate their Design-Actions;

• the close relationships (but with some differences in Objectives and in Process) between Science and Design – because Science Process is contained within Design Process – which are clearly seen when we use the same logical framework to describe both;

• how a process of design can be used to develop-and-apply metacognitive Strategies for Learning-and-Performing.


* For example, Design Process is a way to logically organize the thinking skills & thinking process used by students during science-inquiry activities — and in closely related design-inquiry activities — so Design Process and science-inquiry (plus design-inquiry) are mutually supportive.   Inquiry approaches are recommended (as part of an eclectic blend of instruction) by many educators, and are implicit in the new K-12 Science Education Standards in the "Scientific and Engineering Practices" that might be more effectively taught by using Design Process as one part of an eclectic blend of instruction.