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Design research: A ‘tomorrow’ approach that needs consideration ‘today’?

Rachel Wallis, Primary Curriculum Tutor: PGCE Wales at The Open University

Design research (or design-based research) is a methodological framework that focuses on the ‘tomorrow’; that is, the design of education as it could or should be (Bakker, 2018). Informed by a theoretical approach, an educational design-researcher designs materials (such as sequential learning tasks) and uses research tools to analyse their effectiveness in practice, using the analysis to further develop the materials. In fields such as medicine and engineering, product development typically arises through design, research and iteration, but this approach is not often seen in education (Burkhardt & Swan, 2017). 

In the past 20 years, design research in education has become more established as a methodological framework, evolving from multiple international versions (Bakker, 2018). Importantly, Cobb et al. (2003) note that in design research the theory must do ‘real work’ because theoretical approaches must be applied to design specific learning materials but are also applied to the analysis of the learning that occurs. Although an outcome of educational design research may be learning materials that can be shared and used, the iterative process of designing and developing the materials, and the subsequent analysis of learning means that theories about learning can be further developed. 

My experience with design research, through PhD study, is small scale. I designed tasks reflecting a social constructivist approach to learning and, informed by the work of Davydov (1990, 1992), applied a theoretical view that young learners could be supported to develop multiplicative reasoning (reasoning with interdependent ideas such as multiplication, division and fractions) through tasks based around measures. I analysed learners’ responses to these tasks over two iterative cycles and explored learner and practitioner responses to the tasks being developed. Thus, the design of tasks is research informed, and the research data (observational data, interviews with practitioners and learners, and reflective notes) focuses on the quality and development of the task design. The next step is to iterate the tasks further and roll them out. Through undertaking this research, I have learned more about the theoretical approach and have tasks that could be further developed and shared. The tasks should support the teaching and learning of multiplicative reasoning and measures, while implementing and reflecting on their use can facilitate professional development. 

I do not claim, like Wittmann (2021, p. 87), that the design of substantial teaching units in mathematics should be ‘expert’-driven rather than being ‘left to teachers’. Wittmann (2021) argues that there should be caution around teacher creation of curricula, a view not reflected by the Welsh Government, which supported pioneer practitioners between 2016 and 2020 to design the Curriculum for Wales. The process of development of the Curriculum for Wales did involve support for practitioners from research, for example, commissioning nominated experts and research-informed resources. Nevertheless, the resulting curriculum is essentially a framework from which schools should create their own school-level curricula, something Wittmann (2021) cautions against. 

Teachers design tasks, sequences of lessons and units of study all the time. It is a key part of what they do. Yet, designing curricula, and even shorter-term learning sequences and tasks within them, requires significant time and space for reflection – things most teachers consistently lack. Busy teachers appreciate being able to access well-constructed and progressive learning materials that they can apply in their classrooms, especially if such materials have been tried, tested and further developed in classroom environments like their own. 

‘Designing curricula, and even shorter-term learning sequences and tasks within them, requires significant time and space for reflection – things most teachers consistently lack.’ 

My own research has certainly benefited from involving practitioner views because practitioners know what the benefits and limitations might be, and they offer deep insight into what could work. I would like to think it is a two-way street because evaluating tasks that employ different pedagogic approaches for the development of multiplicative reasoning also supports professional learning.

Thus, involving practitioners in design research can support professional learning, curriculum development and our understanding of learning. In Wales in particular, perhaps now is the ideal time for design research to be seriously considered as an approach that could help develop the tomorrow of the Curriculum for Wales.


Bakker, A. (2018). Design research in education: A practical guide for early career researchers. Routledge. 

Burkhardt, D., & Swan, M. (2017). Design and development for large-scale improvement. In G. Kaiser (Ed.), Proceedings of the 13th International Congress on Mathematical Education: ICME-13. Springer International Publishing. 

Cobb, P., Confrey, J., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9–13. 

Davydov, V. V. (1990). Soviet studies in mathematics education (Vol. 2). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 

Davydov, V. V. (1992). The psychological analysis of multiplicative procedures. Teaching/Learning of Mathematics. 

Wittmann, E. C. (2021). Connecting mathematics and mathematics education: Collected papers on mathematics education as a design science. Springer International Publishing.