Educational Research

Human behaviors, particularly those behaviors relevant to past, present, and future human evolution, well-being, and sustainable development, provide a unique focal point for interdisciplinary learning across grade levels and subject areas. Because human behavior is central to understanding our evolutionary and cultural histories, our developmental life histories, our everyday experiences, and our globalizing futures, this conceptual lens on curriculum design relates to a wide diversity of challenges facing educational development. The potential opportunities presented by using scientific perspectives on human behavior as both a context and content for educational innovation may be significant, but are not currently being broadly engaged within global K-12 educational development communities. This may be due to a complex set of factors spanning issues of curriculum structure, teacher training, as well as the history and contemporary sociology of the human behavioral and education sciences.

We are actively working to advance tools and methods to support Networked Improvement Communities and Design-Based Implementation Research on teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme. Currently these resources are available only to direct partners, if you would to learn more, Contact Us.

Global ESD is working towards the development of Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) of students, educators, community partners, scientists, and researchers, collaborating around interdisciplinary perspectives from the human behavioral sciences as an integrated approach to tackling persistent challenges facing education in the 21st century.

Our research approach is informed by Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR; Fishman et al., 2013; McKenney & Reeves, 2018) which aims to investigate the persistent problems facing education from a systems perspective that accounts for multiple levels of educational design issues and engages students and educators as active participants in the re-design of systems level solutions to these complex challenges.

Learn more about these approaches below, and check back as we advance our tools and research coordination supports for broader collaboration! If you would like to get involved, Contact Us!

Our Theory of Improvement

Our theory of improvement for cultivating competencies in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and contributing to equitable well-being and prosociality through the development of conceptual understanding and psychological flexibility

Historical and modern socio-cultural factors conspire to make it exceedingly difficult for teachers to engage human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme for the development of core student competencies in sustainability education as well as for the fostering of well-being and prosociality in schools and communities.

Strategic development of curriculum, interdisciplinary teacher education and professional development opportunities can help teachers to develop their Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) needed to teach about human behavior across traditional subject areas and grades.

With the development of these professional competencies, schools and classrooms are enabled to reflect and develop their conceptual understanding of human behavior, as well as to apply their understandings towards improving school culture and communities.

The interplay between these academic and applied learning domains can serve to drive student and teacher conceptual understanding of human behavior as well as their skills for psychological flexibility, both of which are hypothesized to be foundational in recognized ESD competencies and in fostering student and teacher well-being and prosociality.

To target these various areas of educational systems interventions, we are involved in the formation of a number of Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), such as the Prosocial Schools and OpenEvo NIC, which collaboratively develop and evaluate educational interventions and infrastructure through a design-based research model.

Our Design-Based Research Model

Our collaborative design-based research model spans 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.

See our academic publications for research output regarding educational systems analysis and design explorations.

In 2021 we aim to focus more strongly on co-design processes in collaboration with researchers, educators, and students within Networked Improvement Communities.

Want to get involved? Contact us!

What is a Networked Improvement Community (NIC)?

Networked Improvement Communities are an explicit model of what humans have been doing since our origins:

Working together to learn together about improving the things that matter!

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. The central aim of a NIC is to help educators and education systems get better at getting better.

Global ESD works to create the research infrastructure and social conditions to allow NICs to form and function around the concept of teaching human behavior as an interdisciplinary theme with the aim of understanding the human condition.

“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 the NIC model, we build on their work and take it in new directions through the integration of cultural evolution theory as a foundational perspective for engaging stakeholders in educational systems change.

Defining features of Networked Improvement Communities

  1. Focused on a well specified aim

    1. Identifies the aim of improvement

    2. Sets measurable targets for improvement

  2. Guided by a deep understanding of the problem

    1. Root cause analysis to identify the factors that cause the problem

  3. Disciplined by the rigor of improvement science

    1. Plan: Identify an intervention, Make Predictions, Plan to monitor progress, Plan for implementation

    2. Do: Implement and collect data

    3. Study: Analyze data and compare with predictions

    4. Act: Based on data analysis, decide how to proceed

  4. Coordinated to accelerate the testing of interventions across contexts

Using ideas borrowed from improvement science, Professor Bryk will show how a process of disciplined inquiry can be combined with the use of networks to identify, adapt, and successfully scale up promising interventions in education. Organised around six core principles, "networked improvement communities" can bring together researchers and practitioners to accelerate learning in key areas of education.

"NICs are a social mechanism through which the collaborative designs and practical theories produced by DBIR can become live resources for the improvement of systems."

- Dolle et al (2013)

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.

Design Based Implementation Research (DBIR)

"Designing effective, scalable, and sustainable policies and programs in education is challenging. Programs that work in one setting may not work in another. Programs supported through grants may not last once funding ends. Many programs require more resources and know-how than individual researchers and educators can provide to make them work for all students.

Design-Based Implementation Research (DBIR) is an approach to organizing research and development intended to address these challenges. It is an emerging approach to relating research and practice that is collaborative, iterative, and grounded in systematic inquiry. DBIR builds the capacity of systems to engage in continuous improvement, so that we can accomplish the transformation of teaching and learning we seek." -

Design-Based Implementation Research emphasizes four core research commitments:

  • Focus on persistent problems of practice from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives

  • Commitment to iterative, collaborative design

  • Concern with developing theory and knowledge related to both classroom learning and implementation through systematic inquiry

  • Concern with developing capacity for sustaining change in systems

For more information about Design-based Implementation Research:


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.

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.

LaMahieu, P. (2015) Networked communities engaged in improvement science: how can we get better at getting better. American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

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

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.