Teaching Alumna Is Creator of Innovative Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning with Backwards Thinking™

“Instruction always runs the risk of swamping the pupil’s own vital, though narrow, experience under masses of communicated material.” — John Dewey

Education innovator and author Doreen Gehry Nelson remembers the moment she saw the potential for what school could be. It was the 1940s, and she was a young child in Canada attending a school she describes as “very rigid and traditional.”

“Here we were at these bolted-down desks,” Nelson said, “but the teacher, Miss McMillan, did one thing I’ve never forgotten that first inspired me about teaching. We were studying China. She brought in a teapot and an electric burner, made tea, passed it around in little cups, and we all had a taste. That was the extent of hands-on learning in a Canadian classroom, but that day I was in China.”

Learning through the spatial domain—making physical artifacts in the context of a collaborative, student-built, student-run, tabletop City of the Future or other contextual environment or system—informs the Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning with Backwards Thinking™. Applied by K-12 educators in classrooms around the world, Design-Based Learning teaches critical thinking through sequential, cross-curricular, hands-on Design Challenges. These Design Challenges, derived from standards-based “big” topics and Essential Questions, enable students to identify dilemmas and imagine and build multiple solutions that reflect their thinking about subject matter before they crack a textbook. After study and research, students revise their original designs by applying learned information. This “Backwards Thinking™” method encompasses self-advocacy, social responsibility, social justice, civics, and governance. Learning sticks, and students become facile in using and reusing information in multiple settings. Specific standards guide an integrated curriculum.

The 2019 establishment of a Doreen Gehry Nelson endowed directorship at the UCLA School of Education’s Center X, brings her methodology back “home.” Nelson did her student teaching in 1959 at UCLA Lab School (then called University Elementary School, or UES). She was influenced by the work of Corinne A. Seeds, UES principal from 1925-1957, and Charlotte Crabtree, a UES demonstration teacher who subsequently joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Education and worked with novice teachers. Nelson (then Ms. Gehry) learned through study and example about the work of John Dewey, whose ideas influence her to this day.

After graduation in 1959, Nelson was hired as a teacher at UES. She remembers those years at the school as an exciting time of intense collaboration with colleagues as they developed hands-on learning that blended social studies with other subject matter. Following in the footsteps of Seeds, she led children in making covered wagons, clothing, and other realia to learn about the Westward Movement of European Americans across the United States. She worked with her training teacher, Mee Lee Ling, to develop a unit on Japan that included shibori fabric dying and Japanese music and dance. She found inspiration in the work of colleague Penrod Moss, who developed the school’s United Nations unit. “Penny was really breaking with tradition,” Nelson said. “He created a dynamic course of study to teach students to express their opinions and engage in critical dialogue, allowing for creative thinking on a very high order.”

Nelson became a public school teacher in Los Angeles. In her first job after UES at Pacific Palisades Elementary School, she asked her new principal for saws, saw horses, and other construction equipment. “They had never done anything like that at the school,” Nelson said.

A conversation with Michael, one of her first 5th-graders, would give her food for thought. She set up a landscape for her Westward Movement unit on the playground, using books, paper, and other materials to simulate the terrain for students to travel over with the covered wagons she had them build. In the middle of the lesson, Michael told her he liked what he had learned in constructing the wagon, but that he felt embarrassed to have to take it outside and pretend to be going west.

Nelson wasn’t sure what to make of the comment at the time. “It took me maybe 20 years to understand that Michael was telling me something very, very important,” she said.

As she continued in her career and studied for her Master’s degree, she began researching long-term retention and Non-Specific Transfer of Learning, leading her to pioneer what is today an entire field of study called Design-Based Learning. Eventually trademarked as the Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning, her Backwards Thinking™ methodology breaks out of the standard teaching method.

“If I had told Michael that there were people who wanted to move from Missouri to California because their life was hard where they were,” she said, “showed him the terrain, told him there would be no electricity, no cell phones, no way to communicate—  and had asked him to imagine and build a carrier, not a wagon—Michael would have wanted to go out on the playground with his unique carrier to see if it worked.

“I found through my research that the experience of spending 45 minutes to build an original physical artifact sticks in a student’s brain,” she added. “It’s like my childhood experience tasting Chinese tea. It stays there. And in my teaching methodology, I call on that.”

Nelson stresses that the purpose of her Design-Based Learning methodology is not building, or design, or arts and crafts. It isn’t about making something beautiful. The purpose is to immerse students in a process of discovery that is meaningful to them. By starting with an open-ended problem and allowing students broad leeway to invent a solution, “they learn to express themselves and become agile decision-makers, with the ability to use and reuse concepts and big ideas across the curriculum and in multiple settings,” she said.

Her research is definitive. Engaging students through this hands-on methodology leads to improved attendance, fewer discipline problems, and higher scores on assessments.

In recognition of her work, Nelson has received numerous awards and honors over the years. She was named one of 30 top American innovators in education by the New York Times in 1991. She is the recipient of both the American Institute of Architecture’s prestigious Lifetime Honorary Membership (the highest honor for a non-architect) and the California State University’s state-wide, 2006 Wang Award for Excellence in Education.

In 2014, the UCLA Library Special Collections acquired her archival materials representing the entire history of her method of Design-Based Learning. The historical materials include an active website, 6,000 slides of K-12 classrooms taken by the Office of Ray and Charles Eames, films and books published by and about Nelson’s work, assessment results, past projects, lesson plans, sample student work, and a chronology of the historic development of the Design-Based Learning field. Nelson was honored to have this archival collection go to UCLA as a resource for future teachers to develop their own cross-curricular application of her Design-Based Learning methodology. UCLA exhibited selected works from Nelson’s archives in a 2017 exhibition.

Center X at UCLA is the recipient of an endowed Doreen Gehry Nelson Directorship of the Design-Based Learning Project, a position held by a full-time director who holds a master’s degree in Nelson’s methodology.

One of the ways Nelson introduces her methodology to teachers is by having them do what they can have their students do: select a hand-held, physical object that represents them and turn it into a Never-Before-Seen Creature/Avatar. When asked what object represented her, Nelson chose a small pair of scissors.

“Scissors are interesting because they can create things,” she said, holding her scissors-inspired ‘Creature” made of cotton balls and paper, “and they can cut through the crap. And that interests me a lot. They are also fragile in a certain way, but they are strong, too.”

Learn More

Doreen Gehry Nelson: Design-Based Learning Brings Innovation to Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

The Doreen Gehry Nelson Method Design-Based Learning

Design-Based Learning Project at Center X