Tired Thoughts After Reading About Design Research

I finished all of the books on my “to read” pile, and I just haven’t gotten to placing another order yet… I maintain my list on Amazon, but have committed to buying all of my books from independent book sellers, so the stream of new to me books has been interrupted. Fortunately, my copy of the The International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Fisher, 2018) came with me when I abandoned my office in March (I’m planning a mission to rescue the rest of my professional library soon) and it contains a few unread chapters.

It has been refreshing to turn away from the work of building courses and designing instruction with faculty to consider the chapters on research methodology. I’m a fan of bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners with something more than what is traditionally described as action research, so the chapters on design based research, design based implementation research, and participatory design piqued my attention and I read with pencil in hand (the indication that I’m really reading).

It struck me as I read these chapters that the appeal of such methods has always been that they are pragmatic, and seek to build knowledge in the settings where it will be implemented. My undergraduate education was in biology, so I have some knowledge of how experimental researchers seek to control all factors. Attempts to control for variables in classrooms is  not possible, so I have valued methods that seek to build knowledge within the circumstances of practitioners who will be using the knowledge. I encountered this sentence in one of the chapters, “These collaborations frequently involved designing and instructional tool that not only considers the needs of the students, but also addresses the needs of the teachers who ultimately responsible for using these tools in the classroom” (Gomez, Kyza, & Mancevice, 2018, p. 401).  What struck me about this sentence, and I’m not sure what in my brain was prepared to read this—but I did, was “the needs of the teachers.” My mind immediately went to the full collection of factors that affect what determines “the needs of teachers.”

Those who have been in education for any length of time know these factors are far more complicated than we might predict. Specifically, when reading this sentence, my mind went to the hubris of teachers and the political nature of schools. Ostensibly, schools are about learning and changing learners’ brains, so everyone is going to advocate for their “needs” as what is best for the students.

The question in my mind right now is “What is the design or participatory researcher’s role in challenging those ‘needs’ that are contrary to what we know about learning?” What is our role in designing research to be sure instruction is implemented in a crummy setting. Consider this example: I’m a researcher seeking to understand how newly developed simulations can affect learning of science concepts. How should the researcher react and respond and design the project if the teacher “needs” to account for “learning styles” in the project?

In this case, the researcher may be introducing inaccurate theories of learning into the design of the research and into the interpretation of the results.

Surely, more experienced researchers than I will be prepared to address such situations and they would take steps to either mitigate the influences of the misguided concepts on the outcomes or they would perhaps abandon the project.

As practitioners who seek to ground our practice in theory… good theory… sound theory that is supported by independent and peer-reviewed evidence, we are going to encounter situations in which our needs (and by extension our students’ needs) run counter to the “needs” of the systems (political and organizational) where we teach. I do have experience working in such situations—I usually leave for another job—but I am recognizing a greater responsibility now.

If my organization “needs” me to contribute to racist procedures… if my supervisor “needs” me to adopt dubious practices… if my design partners “need” me to incorporate fallacious ideas… how am I to react? Increasingly, I am seeing a responsibility for calling out those procedures, practices, and ideas. It was acceptable to walk away and get a new job previously, but I’m not sure it is anymore.