The emerging field of the learning sciences is interdisciplinary, drawing on multiple theoretical perspectives and research paradigms so as to build understandings of the nature and conditions of learning, cognition, and development.
Learning sciences researchers investigate cognition in context, at times emphasizing one more than the other but with the broad goal of developing evidence-based claims derived from both laboratory-based and naturalistic investigations that result in knowledge about how people learn. This work can involve the development of technological tools, curriculum, and especially theory that can be used to understand and support learning. A fundamental assumption of many learning scientists is that cognition is not a thing located within the individual thinker but is a process that is distributed across the knower, the environment in which knowing occurs, and the activity in which the learner participates. In other words, learning, cognition, knowing, and context are irreducibly co-constituted and cannot be treated as isolated entities or processes. One methodology, or rather collection of methodologies, that have emerged to support building theoretically-inspired innovations and warranted claims about their effectiveness is design-based research or design-based implementation research.
Design-based research (DBR) is used to study learning in environments that are designed and systematically changed by the researcher. DBR is not a fixed “cookbook” method; it is a collection of approaches that involve a commitment to studying activity in naturalistic settings, many of which are designed and systematically changed by the researcher, with the goal of advancing theory at the same time directly impacting practice. The goal of DBR (sometimes also referred to as design experiments) is to use the close study of learning as it unfolds within a naturalistic context that contains theoretically inspired innovations, usually that have passed through multiple iterations, to then develop new theories, artifacts, and practices that can be generalized to other schools and classrooms. This iterative design process allows the researcher to move beyond simply understanding the world as it is, and involves working to change it in useful ways with the broader goal of examining how these systematic changes influence learning and practice (Barab & Squire, 2004). This innovative aspect of design-based research makes it a useful methodology for advancing new theory and practice.
Design-based research involves more than simply reporting outcomes: DBR moves beyond descriptive accounts to offer what Gee (2013) refers to as “storied truths” from which others can gain process insights that usefully inform their work. Storied truths, while bound to a particular context, are based on a level of reflexive thinking in relation to grounded warrants (Toulmin, 1969; also see Andriessen & Baker, this volume) that shift the underlying claim from personal sentiment or informed opinion to a warranted argument that is meaningfully tied to the world. Such sharing involves methodological precision and rich accounts so that others can judge the value of the contribution, as well as make connections to their own contexts of innovation. According to educational researchers who use DBR–and contrary to the arguments of those pushing for experimental designs as the gold standard–the messiness of real-world practice must be recognized, understood, and integrated as part of theoretical claims if the claims are to have real-world explanatory value.
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.