How the Stanford Design Model Influenced my Problem of Practice

What would be needed to make high school students want to come to class? What does it take to get students to show up excited, energized and ready to learn? These questions and more are at the heart of my Problem of Practice – to re-design my SIMPLE Learning Cycle in AP Biology.

A draft of the SIMPLE model

As I mentioned in a previous post, “I want my students to be active in their learning. I want them to feel that what they are doing will make a difference. I want them to feel comfortable taking risks. I want them to take more ownership over the pace and depth of their learning. I want to know that they are learning and if they are not, I want to provide personalized feedback. Finally, I want my role to shift from the guy in front giving all the information to the guy who facilitates discussions, offers advice, and explains ideas in small groups.” So how did I start to tackle my Problem of Practice? By proceeding through the five stages of the Stanford design model.

Stage 1: Empathize

My first step was to better understand my users – also known as my students – through empathy. To do this, I emailed them a short Google Forms survey. I asked them questions about their school day, activities and also about how they learn best. In addition, I sat down with a few of my students and just talked about school. The students seemed to enjoy having an adult listen to what they had to say and they eagerly shared both the good and the bad. Finally, I spent some time walking around school and making my own observations about what was happening in the classrooms. Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 9.52.38 AMThrough all of these experiences, I was shocked to find out that my students spend nearly their entire school day passively sitting and listening to instruction. No wonder they are often disengaged, lethargic and disconnected. They are half asleep! Spending time in my students shoes reinforced my problem of practice – they way I teach needed to change!

Stage 2: Define

Now that I had recognized a significant problem, it was time to draft a clear and specific definition for my Problem of Practice. To help get this process started, I worked through a few exercises such as “5 Whys”, “Why-How Ladder”, and “Point-of-View Madlibs”. These exercises lead to this definition:

High school students currently spend up to 90% of their school day passively listening to their teachers and peers. This passive environment does not deeply engage the students and therefore, it falls short of providing long lasting understanding while also failing to produce good thinkers.

I concluded that a major cause of this passive problem was due to teachers feeling the burden of numerous local, state and national standards and that this pressure to cover so much information resulted in a passive learning environment because it allows the teacher to proceed through the material more quickly.

Stage 3: Ideate

With my Problem of Practice defined, it was time ideate. This stage includes both brainstorming and incubation with the goal of generating as many ideas as possible. While brainstorming is more of an active process of coming up with ideas, incubation is more of an unconscious process of letting our thoughts and ideas marinate and blend into something new. Brainstorming 1I started this stage with a solo brainstorming session where I jotted down any and every thought, idea and question regarding my POP. Later, I sat down with a coworker for a group brainstorming session. This time, we used a whiteboard and markers to write down everything that came to mind – even if it did not seem relevant. Brainstorming with someone else seemed much more helpful as our ideas often built off of each other. After these brainstorming sessions, I purposely took time away from my POP to let these thoughts and ideas incubate. I kept a journal on Evernote so that whenever ideas popped into my mind (which they often did at random times) I could easily add them to my journal using my computer, phone or iPad (which automatically sync). Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 9.04.48 AM

By the end of the ideation stage, I found myself focusing on the idea of combining the 55 AP Biology standards into questions and building each lesson around one of these questions. In addition, these lesson questions would help to answer a unit question and unit questions would help answer course questions. I felt that this idea would help to free up time (by reducing 55 standards to around 30-35 lessons) while also boosting student motivation as the students seek to answer these questions while making connections to other lessons/questions. Other ideas were emerging as well (flipping the classroom and increased student metacognition) but I felt that step one should be to design lesson questions for my AP Biology class. This organization became my prototype.

Stage 4: Prototype

As I began to work on my prototype of lesson questions and reorganization, I realized that I had a bit of ground work to do before generating lesson questions. I first needed to lay out (and revise) the units and lessons of my AP Biology class and then note which AP Biology standards fit under each unit/lesson. Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.46.28 AMOnce I had a rough outline in place, I changed the topic of each lesson into a question (ex. Topic: Cell Membrane, Question: How are materials transported into and out of a cell?). At first, it seemed like a monumental task to do this for each lesson but once I accepted the fact that prototypes are a work in progress and that my prototype will undergo many drafts, I felt more relaxed and things started to come together. In the end, my prototype became a seven-page document that laid out the order of my units, where each AP Biology standard fit, and at least one potential questions for each lesson.

Stage 5: Test

With my prototype finished, the time to test it had come. I have taught this AP Biology class for four years and I found it hard to break away from what I have always done. However, I knew that my prototype had room for improvement and that other AP Biology teachers would have good ideas on how to organize this course and provide me with a new, fresh look. Therefore, I emailed and texted several teachers and asked them to share their opinions of my prototype.I also tweeted my prototype hoping to attract even more help from teachers I don’t know.

I collected this teacher feedback in two places. First, they were encouraged to leave comments directly on the Google Doc prototype. Since I invited each of these contacts to the same Google Doc, this allowed a sort of brainstorming dialogue to emerge where they could build off of each other’s thoughts and ideas. In addition, I created a short Google Form that could be filled out during or after looking through the organization. The feedback I received was great! There were many suggestions as to the order of topics, where standards should fall and what questions to use. I am now in the process of using this feedback to revise my prototype.


Once my lesson questions are set, I will continue to use the Stanford design process to create (and sometimes revise) each SIMPLE lesson. I have already collected a lot of useful data through the empathy and ideate stages so after reflecting a bit on this information, I will build a prototype of a revised SIMPLE lesson. This will hopefully lead to a completely redesigned AP Biology curriculum that gets my students out of their seats as they actively investigate questions in an attempt to understand the world around them.

The Stanford design process is organized in a way that allows anyone to become a designer as it takes a complex problem and breaks it down into smaller more manageable parts. For me, this makes the design process much less overwhelming. However, I think the biggest advantage of this design model is that it forces the designer to set aside devoted time. In a world of calendars, to-do lists and multitasking, it is hard to focus on just one thing. Setting aside dedicated time to think about the users, generate and incubate ideas, and test prototypes allows the designer to give the design process the attention it needs.

Appendices: Click the links below for more information.

Detailed description of SIMPLE

Empathy Survey

Empathy Survey Results

Solo Brainstorming Notes

Ideation Journal

Organization Prototype

Testing Feedback Survey

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