How Does Design-Based Learning Work?

three boys discussing a project

It’s a 6-and-a-half-step process called Backwards Thinking

process circle iconBefore the students start reading, writing or talking about the lesson, the teacher presents the challenge. For example, if the lesson is about the movement of goods and services, the challenge might be, “Design a never-before-seen system for moving people and products within a city.”

The teacher begins by asking the students to make a list of Don’t Wants. Students voice all their preconceived ideas and fears about the subject by suggesting features the system should not have. This list is written in red (STOP).

Then the teacher introduces a list of Needs. This is the sneaky part! The list introduces all the vocabulary of the concept being studied. But the students don’t know this. All they know is that these are the ground rules for the challenge. This list is written in green (GO). Students refer to the Needs as they work, and they are graded on their understanding of the vocabulary and on their inclusion of all the items in the list.

The students make instant 3-D models representing their solutions and explain the workings of their models to the group. They learn to accept suggestions that lead to revisions. Then the students present their models to the class, which offers more suggestions.

DBL Curriculum Integration Chart

Design-Based Learning starts with the design challenge (red triangle), based on curriculum standards. As students make their 3-D models, they actively seek out more information in the guided lessons, which use vocabulary from the list of Needs drawn up at the beginning of the challenge.

The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning™
Curriculum Integration Chart

curriculum chart




















Download an accessible PDF file of this chart

Talking, reading, writing and computation are central components of DBL. The students learn to give oral presentations, construct charts, maps and diagrams, do research, draw up comparative lists, write reports and make mathematical calculations.

This never-before-seen transportation system challenge might involve research into the roles of gravity and vibration (science), historical methods of travel (social studies), and the interdependence of food producers and consumers (social studies), as well as calculation of distances, capacities and sizes (mathematics).

6th-Grade Example: Building a Never-Before-Seen Ancient Civilization

  • In a class that studying ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Mesopotamia, the teacher challenges the students to design a never-before-seen ancient civilization.
  • Students learn to strategize ways of building an instant 3-D scale model of this environment. What does it look like, and what is it made of?
  • To do this, they need to answer increasingly complex questions. (Talking to one another is part of this process, because it enables students to retain the vocabulary of the concept being taught.)
    • What kinds of dwellings will people live in?
    • Where will their food come from?
    • What happens if someone steals food from someone else?
    • What jobs need to be done, and who will do them?
    • How will people protect themselves against an outside enemy?
    • How would they recover from a natural disaster?
    • What values will they live by?
    • How will they educate their children?
    • What happens when someone dies
  • Students learn to locate, evaluate and apply relevant information.
  • They use information to make lists, maps, drawings and 3-D scale models with written descriptions.
  • They learn to give formal presentations to each other, to small groups and to the class.
  • Using teacher and student feedback, and information from their research, students learn to continuously analyze and refine their thinking.
  • In the guided lessons, students learn to read and write and gain mathematical skills.

Benefits for English Language Learners (ELL)

Vocabulary words are listed in the “Needs” criteria at the very beginning of the challenge, and are voiced repeatedly, as students make and describe their 3-D objects.

A Context for Learning

Psychologist Jerome Bruner described the highest level of learning as the ability to discover the universal principles that underlie the curriculum. 

DBL teaching is rooted in the idea of a community, because it is composed of individual parts that fit together. A community is also immediately understandable, unthreatening (everyone has an opinion about it) and flexibly open-ended. Depending on grade level, the community could be a house, a city, a village, a business, a government, a civilization, an outpost, or a Utopia.

Students learn about the community’s systems and organizations by figuring out what the community needs to function properly. What individual parts does it contain? What does each part need, and how does it interact with the others? What happens if there’s a breakdown? Who can help, and how?

Traditional Teaching vs. The Doreen Nelson Method of DBL

Traditional Teaching
Doreen Nelson Method of DBL

2-D and passive; teacher is absolute authority.

Teacher conveys a basic level of information about a subject through speaking, discussion or a reading assignment.

In succeeding weeks and months, more complex levels of information build on the basic level, according to the lesson plan.

Students are supposed to synthesize information on their own and develop original ideas about the subject.

Many students tune out long before the “synthesis” phase, because the information has no relevance to their lives.

In one year, students forget 50 percent of what they’ve been  taught. In two years, they forget 80 percent.

Teacher presents concepts by posing a challenge that is based on a 3-D model of a community, and then facilitates shared decision-making.

Teacher sets criteria at the beginning of a challenge, so that the finished project has a reference point for evaluation.

Students learn to solve challenges using inexpensive materials.

To find answers that arise from the challenge, students consult books, other media and/or experts.

Students talk to one another about their ideas.

Over an extended period of time, students learn to deal with more complex organizations and social relationships. They learn to organize their ideas into models and charts, and to evaluate, justify and refine their thinking about a concept.

Student skills—in language, reading, math and other curriculum subjects—improve markedly, especially for pupils at the lower end of the scale (including (including those with learning disabilities).

6 1/2 Steps of Backwards Thinking >