Design Research

Our Research Model

Our collaborative design-based research model encompasses the analysis of educational contexts, the collaborative design and evaluation of curriculum, school improvement tools and infrastructure, and the implementation and spread of innovations across contexts, towards an overarching educational design concept.

This model informs the structure of our database systems, including our ThesisBase, MethodsBase, and StudyBase. And perhaps most importantly, provides a guiding framework for the development of educational innovations and design research related to our Educational Design Concept.

Figure 1. The OpenEvo Educational Design Research Model.

Educational Design Research for Networked Improvement Communities

Teaching the evolutionary origins of, and human capacities for cooperation is itself a cooperative act, requiring the coordination and collaboration of a wide diversity of educational stakeholders. Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) are groups of stakeholders that come together around a shared purpose of improving educational systems through repeated cycles of inquiry (see Dolle et al. 2013; Bryk et al. 2015; LaMahieu et al. 2017). The central aim of a NIC is to help educators and education systems get better at getting better.

OpenEvo works to create the educational design research infrastructure and social conditions that can support NICs in forming and functioning around the concept of teaching human evolution, behavior, and sustainability as interdisciplinary themes.

Humans have been organizing themselves into collectives for social, political, and commercial enterprise for a very long time. Long before there were learning communities in schools or social networks on the Internet, there were tribes organizing our actions.

– Paul LeMahieu,
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of TeachingThe Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is the leading organization for advancing NICs

When it comes to teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme, the basic framework for NICs is fully relevant, however, some additional considerations need to be taken into account due to the conceptual and sociological complexities of scientific perspectives on the topic at hand.
Specifically, the challenge of teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme is posited to be simultaneously a root cause of a multitude of persistent problems in education, and is itself emergent from a complex of persistent problems in both science and education.

Tackling this complexity within an applied research framework therefore requires significant investment in problem framing, as well as a highly diverse, networked approach to inquiry and knowledge synthesis.

For these reasons, at the highest level of conceptualization, our research model is informed by three guiding principles (originally described in Eirdosh 2022):

Improving educational systems is a socially and technically complex process, involving many diverse stakeholders and complex cultural patterns of change and stasis. Educational research, in this context, has broadly been critiqued in terms of how research insights are translated into real-world practice. Educational design research (McKenney & Reeves 2018, Mintrop 2020) can be described as one response to these critiques. Within this expansive tradition, concepts such as Networked Improvement Communities (NICs, Bryk et al. 2015, LeMahieu et. al 2017), and Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships (RPPs, Penuel 2019) have emerged to suggest the need for networked co-design of innovations with school stakeholders as a driver of effective implementation, evaluation, and improvement. In this context, a core commitment across this work has been to engage a robust diversity of stakeholders, including scientists, teachers, and students themselves, not simply as participants, but as co-designers of our educational design concept. 

Supporting educational communities in networked co-design is not a simple task, especially in the uncharted landscape of interdisciplinary evolution education. Therefore, a central aim of educational systems improvement in this space must be on creating infrastructure (i.e. infrastructuring; Penuel 2019), or creating the tools, resources, processes, institutions, technologies, knowledge, and skills to drive effective implementation, evaluation, and improvement of targeted innovations. In this context, the extensive conceptual clarification, education design concept development, and digital design-based research infrastructure that have emerged within the development of OpenEvo, all represent a central commitment toward capacity building through infrastructuring activities. 

Finally, infrastructuring for networked co-design is likely to be important for the sustainability of any given educational improvement project (Penuel 2019), critically however, sustaining improvement efforts may have scientific merit beyond the valued improvements themselves. 

As co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Richard McElreath (2018), describes:

“Human societies display long-form adaptation. Humans adapt behaviorally, and human behavior requires years to acquire and generations to develop. Long-form behavioral adaptations explain our species’ extraordinary diversity and its ecological success. At the same time, the cognitive mechanisms and population dynamics that make longform adaptation possible also make possible evolutionarily novel societies and forms of behavior and technology. Humans have coexisted with these evolutionary novelties for long enough that our genes are adapted to them.

The study of long-form adaptation will benefit from long-form research that is both longitudinal and comparative, allowing it to inform theories of human evolution and the dynamics of human societies. Normal human science lacks the necessary infrastructure.” 

McElreath is framing this concept of long-form research in the context of the foundational scientific aims of his own field of human behavioral ecology, yet the implications for applied educational design research are at least as significant. Educational design is a model long-form adaptive cultural trait, or at least, that is what societies often seem to (implicitly) hope for. The variability of the adaptive value of education, however that may be defined for any given individual or community, is the central outcome that networked improvement approaches to educational design research seek to address over time. That is, for schooling to be considered adaptive for cultural groups (or the planet as a whole), schools definitionally need to consider the nested scales in space and time at which human adaptations are evolving, from within individuals in the immediate moment (sensu Wilson & Hayes 2018; Atkins et al 2019), to the evolving institutions that shape and sustain valued innovations across school systems over generations. Our Educational Design Concept further opens a landscape of questions about the role of student conceptual understanding (sensu Stern et al 2021) of human behavior in the dynamics underpinning such long-form adaptations. 

Integrating these three guiding principles with the practical range of investigative possibilities outlined in our model (Figure 1 above) presents a robust space for structured innovations to emerge around the potential of teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme. The growing diversity of resources on OpenEvo demonstrate the richness of the possibilities for researchers and students of all ages.

Join us in evolving the future of education!


Atkins, P. W., Wilson, D. S., & Hayes, S. C. (2019). Prosocial: using evolutionary science to build productive, equitable, and collaborative groups. New Harbinger Publications.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.

Dolle, J. R., Gomez, L. M., Russell, J. L., & Bryk, A. S. (2013). More than a network: Building professional communities for educational improvement. National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, 112(2), 443-463.

Eirdosh, Dustin (2022): Teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science: concepts, theory, and network infrastructure for educational design research. Jena. Online unter:

Fishman, B. J., Penuel, W. R., Allen, A. R., Cheng, B. H., & Sabelli, N. O. R. A. (2013). Design-based implementation research: An emerging model for transforming the relationship of research and practice. National society for the study of education, 112(2), 136-156.

LeMahieu, P. G., Bryk, A. S., Grunow, A., & Gomez, L. M. (2017). Working to improve: Seven approaches to improvement science in education. Quality Assurance in Education.

McElreath, R. (2018). A long-form research program in human behavior, ecology, and culture. White paper:

McKenney, S & Reeves (2018). Conducting Educational Design Research. 2nd edition. Routledge.

Mintrop, R. (2020). Design-based school improvement: A practical guide for education leaders. Harvard Education Press.

Penuel, W. R. (2019). Co-design as infrastructuring with attention to power: Building collective capacity for equitable teaching and learning through design-based implementation research. In Collaborative curriculum design for sustainable innovation and teacher learning (pp. 387-401). Springer, Cham.

Penuel, W. R., & Gallagher, D. J. (2017). Creating Research Practice Partnerships in Education. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Penuel, W.R. (Undated) Developing a DBIR Research Plan. Research & Practice Collaboratory.

Stern, J., Ferraro, K., Duncan, K., & Aleo, T. (2021). Learning That Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Corwin Press.

Wilson, D.S., & Hayes, S.C. (2018). Evolution and contextual behavioral science: An integrated framework for understanding, predicting, and influencing human behavior. New Harbinger Publications.

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