The DBIR model

Over the years of our anchored collaboration project, we have used design-based implementation research (DBIR) methods to design, implement, and revise APGOV, the second course, AP Environmental Science (APES), and the course currently under development, AP Physics I. DBIR is an emerging model for conducting research and development of educational interventions that are inherently usable, scalable, and sustainable (Penuel, Fishman, Cheng, & Sabelli, 2011). Our focus on DBIR is motivated by a concern that educational interventions rarely survive the translation from research to practice, and the mechanisms for studying interventions often focus on alignment and fidelity rather than adaptation.

DBIR is rooted in the following four principles:

  • A partnership that is characterized by goals and strategies that are jointly developed by the partners (i.e., as contrasted with a model in which researchers simply secure the cooperation of practitioners to implement and test new interventions);
  • A commitment to iterative, collaborative design;
  • A concern with developing theory and knowledge related to both classroom learning and implementation through systematic inquiry; and
  • A concern with developing capacity for sustaining change in systems (informed by iterative development, testing, and revision across different school and district contexts and by systematic study of implementation across contexts).

DBIR seeks to change the relationship between research and practice, such that interventions are designed from the start by/with their ultimate uses/users in mind, with work motivated and informed by theories and methods from both the learning sciences (e.g., NRC, 2000), which often focuses at the level of classrooms, and policy research (e.g., Rowan & Miller, 2007; Feldman & Pentland, 2003), which more usually focuses at the level of systems.

Design Principles

The original collaborators on the project developed the following design principles that we have used to design all courses (AP US Government & Politics, AP Environmental Sciences and AP Physics).

1. Projects as the spine of the course

2. Quasi-repetitive activity cycles (“looping”)

3. Engagement that creates a need to know

4. Teachers as co-designers and collaborators

5. An eye toward scalability

All project cycles have characteristics in common:

Projects are centered on authentic project tasks in which students take on integral roles for prolonged periods of time (3-7 weeks).
Projects begin with an orientation to the task and students’ roles, and a discussion of connections to previous and future project cycles so that students know what is expected of them and where they are going in the project cycle.
Projects require student collaboration in groups or pairs, as well as individual work and whole class discussion.
Projects revisit key concepts and practices to deepen understanding (within-project looping).
Projects encourage the use of multiple forms of formative assessment to give students opportunities to reflect on, revise and improve their understanding.
Projects provide a “need to know” for students, prompting engagement in learning the concepts and practices necessary to accomplish the tasks.
Projects include instructional supports and scaffolds that help students to learn more deeply from text and engage more meaningfully with the discipline.
Projects have a flexible structure to allow teachers to make modifications to best suit their particular students and available resources.

1. Projects as the spine of the course

In our approach to PBL, students work both collaboratively and alone to develop knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry structured around complex, authentic challenges. Project work requires heightened communication—lots of public talk as students work to interpret texts, labs, fieldwork, and the problems at the heart of the course (Parker, 2010; Ravitz, 2008).

Through project activities—and the recurring phases of project anticipation, execution, and reflection—students have multiple opportunities to try out their current levels of understanding, revise them, and in this way deepen them. But this means inverting the typical course organization where projects, if any, are treated as add-ons or end-of-course capstones— valuable activities done after reading and remembering has been done, after “background” information has been acquired. Instead, we aimed to create a course experience where challenging projects provide the spine of the course, not the appendages. The projects are the entrée, not the dessert.

2. Building depth through quasi-repetitive activity cycles: “looping”

Quasi-repetitive activity cycles (Bransford et al., 2006), or what our teachers dubbed “looping,” means that students have opportunities to revisit questions, ideas, and problems. This, we reasoned, is a key to deepening (complicating, differentiating, and integrating) their evolving understandings of the core AP topics. Expertise in any domain, from playing baseball to making public policy, generally grows with the right sort of repeated practice—with “trying again” under somewhat different conditions and feedback.

The course projects are each conceived as a knowledge-in-action learning cycle where students alternate between learning to act and acting to learn. “Learning to act” occurs when students are in traditional AP mode (textbook, lecture, test prep), and “acting to learn” is when they are engaged in projects with real‐world goals and products. Key to the depth-breadth challenge, the projects are united by a course “master question”—for APGOV, What is the proper role of government in a democracy? And for AP Environmental Science, How can we live more sustainably?

As students move through the project cycles, they repeatedly respond to (loop back on) the master question and “try again” to generate a response, reflecting on what they gleaned from the prior project cycles and the project cycle at hand. Here is inquiry-based learning—an intellectual investigation—but stretched through an entire course. By unifying the projects, the master question gives the course one big topic rather than innumerable little topics, thus turning the “pancake” into something more like a pyramid. Through this looping, we conjectured, knowing and acting would deepen in tandem.

3. Engagement that leads to need to know

In a paper called “A Time for Telling,” Schwartz and Bransford (1998) explored “when to use texts, lectures, and explanations within the total repertoire of instructional methods,” and concluded that there is a “readiness” for learning from textbook readings or lectures after some understanding has been generated in other ways (p. 476). A design principle, therefore, was that engagement in project work (e.g., being assigned to the role of a legislator with the task of setting up an office) would typically precede “telling” (e.g., a lecture or reading on how Congress interacts with other institutions of national government).

The purpose of this sequencing is to create a readiness for telling so that the information students gain by it, whether through textbook reading or listening to a lecture, is needed for making progress on the project and constructing a suitable understanding. In this way the telling has somewhere to go because there is already something going on—students are already engaged in an action arena in which the telling can be of service; the telling serves to explain and elaborate what is going on in the project work. “When telling occurs without readiness,” Schwartz and Bransford conclude, “the primary recourse for students is to treat the new information as ends to be memorized rather than as tools to help them perceive and think” (p. 477).

This is a key reason why our team chose PBL as the basic architecture for the course. That is, when done well, PLB inverts the piling on of what is commonly called “background information” prior to project work, presumably so that students will “know enough” to participate in the project. That traditional sequence, inverted here, is a persistent, deeply rooted routine in schooling and one that can prevent students from ever getting to use and try out their understandings over extended periods of time.

4. Teachers as co‐designers and collaborators

Brown (1992) concluded that, if classrooms are to be transformed from “academic work factories to learning environments that encourage reflective practice among students, teachers, and researchers” (p. 174), then experimentation on complex classroom interventions are inevitably collaborative undertakings among teachers, researchers, and school administrators. This requires the design to be constantly grounded in school practice. This course design put our teacher collaborators in the position of being curriculum makers—continually working to integrate AP content with a set of projects selected or designed collaboratively by the team. To do this, we needed to create a course flow that looped effectively from one project cycle to the next in pursuit of success on the AP exam plus deep learning and student engagement.
5. Scalability

Our aim was not a “hot house” experiment that would display what is possible but improbable. Complex interventions in classroom practice are not satisfied with establishing that a change in practice is possible; rather, they are done with an eye to scale, or what Brown called “migration.” Accordingly, as she wrote, researchers “must operate always under the constraint that an effective intervention should be able to migrate from our experimental classroom to average classrooms operated by and for average students and teachers, supported by realistic technological and personal support” (p. 143).

We aimed, therefore, for a design that could be adapted by others who could, in turn, further the research and development in other circumstances, thus widening the community of teachers and researchers working to deepen learning in rigorous courses.