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

Testing with Teachers

A few weeks ago, I designed a prototype for my Problem of Practice. While the goal of my POP is to redesign my SIMPLE Learning Cycle in AP Biology (in an attempt to create a more hands-on, relevant and personalized learning environment) my prototype started at square 1 – the organization of topics and the creation of lesson questions. With my prototype ready to go, it was time to test it! I decided that this round of testing would ask for feedback from other AP Biology teachers as they would be familiar with the topics and standards that need to be addressed in this class. Down the road, once my plan has been refined, I will seek input from students as well. Through various conventions, I have become friends with a few AP Biology teachers in other cities and states. Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.12.21 PMTherefore, I invited them to view the prototype of my suggested organization and to offer comments on the order or topics, placement of standards, proposed lesson questions, and any suggestions as to unit and/or course questions. Their feedback was collected in two places. First, they were encouraged to leave comments within the Google Doc. Since I invited each of these contacts to the same Google Doc, this allowed a sort of brainstorming dialogue to emerge where we 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. This form allowed me to collect and organize general thoughts on four categories: overall organization, placement of standards, lesson questions, and unit questions. I was also curious if other AP Biology teachers would be interested in this prototype so I tweeted out a request for help. Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.04.53 PMLinked to this request was a new copy of the Google Doc for them to comment on as well as a link to my survey. Finally, I emailed a former AP Biology teacher who currently trains teachers in good science practices. She felt more comfortable discussing this organizational prototype in a person so we will be meeting in the near future (the meeting was delayed due to spring break).

So the big question is what have I learned from this testing phase? Well, in terms of the testing itself, don’t ask teachers for help during Spring Break! While the teachers I contacted directly have been good sports, I did not get any feedback from my Twitter plea. In hindsight, I probably should have Tweeted my request a few more times and now I plan to sent out a second request after I post this blog. In addition, I think the conversation of comments occurring on my Google Doc will continue for the next few weeks and I am hoping that Spring Break will have served as an incubation period. I have also realized that the testing stage might be the most time consuming phase of the design model as it is heavily dependent on other people (but again, my experience might be skewed by Spring Break). As for what I learned about my POP? The jury is still out! For now, I am hearing that, a few of my proposed units may have become too big and therefore might have to be split. In addition, while the lesson questions I came up with are functional, they might be a bit boring. Now that I am getting new ideas as to the topic organization and possible questions, it may soon be time to enlisted the help of some of my current students as I look to test prototype number two.

Testing my Prototype

If you have been following my previous blog posts, you are aware of my Problem of Practice – Redesigning my SIMPLE Learning Cycle. Last week I created a prototype for the organization of my AP Biology class. This week, it is time to test it!

The testing of my AP Biology Organization prototype includes reaching out to other AP Biology teachers via email, text messages and Twitter. I asked for my testers to provide comments, advice and criticisms on both the shared Google Doc and on a brief survey. I will then use this feedback to enhance and improve my prototype. Hopefully, after a few rounds of this testing, reflecting and improving, I’ll have a final product to be proud of.

Please watch my Testing video (below) to see how this process works. (Click HERE if the embedded video does not work.)

AP Biology Reorganization – A Prototype

For the past few months, I have been working on redesigning my SIMPLE Learning model in AP Biology. Many good ideas surfaced during my brainstorming sessions a few weeks ago but I decided that one of these ideas needed to come first – building each SIMPLE lesson around a question rather than around one of the AP Biology Standards. My hope is that this organization will allow each lesson to be more exploratory, while also reducing the total number of lessons from 55 (based on standards) down to around 35. Once I finalize these lesson questions, I will then organize them under unit questions which will in turn be organized under a few course questions. At that point, I will start worrying about how the students will answer these questions.

As I began to work on my prototype of lesson questions, I realized that I had a bit more work to do first. I first needed to lay out the units of my AP Biology class and then note what AP Biology standards fit under each unit/topic. Many standards fit multiple places while a few are more specific. In the end, I reorganized my units a bit (mostly the cell unit) and was able to assign 52 of the 55 standards. At this point, I went back to my outline and attempted to turn my topics in questions. I found this very difficult at first as I was trying to come up with the perfect question each time. However, I then remembered that this prototype would just be one of many drafts and that allowed me to just start typing. I am hoping that as I begin to test this prototype by sharing with several AP Biology teachers, many revisions will be made.

Please click here (or the picture below) to see the complete organization. If you would like to collaborate with me, please leave me a comment below or request access on the Google Document. That will give you the ability to comment.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.46.28 AM

A Prototype of my View of Learning

We are talking about prototyping this week in my Learning Technology by Design class and my lab task was to create something (a prototype) to represent an idea. The idea I choose was to represent my view of learning. After a bit of thought, I pulled together some old gloves, a hat, unused ethernet cables, a few objects that represent doing (tools, Legos, Makey Makey, calculator) and a box. Add a bit of tape and my prototype was done!

View of Learning

When I first thought about how to represent this idea, I wasn’t really sure how to begin. However, much of what I read this past week (and a focus of my Problem of Practice) was about learning by doing. Therefore, I started by looking for a glove to represent hands-on construction. This quickly turned into several hands (gloves). I then wanted to show that what the hands are doing affects the brain (the hat). Therefore, I went hunting for some yarn to make the (neural) connections. However, I came across several colors of ethernet cables so I used those instead. I liked how as I started building and tweaking this model, my view of learning became clearer. I was also surprised that this process really didn’t take too long and everything I used was just laying around the house.

Ideation Through Brainstorming and Incubation

For the past two weeks, my Learning Technology by Design class has focused on ideation. The goal of this phase has been to generate as many ideas or solutions regarding my Problem of Practice as possible. Early in the week, I created an incubation journal in Evernote. I choose Evernote because I can access this journal with my computer, phone or iPad and odds are, I’ll always have access to one of those devices! There were times when I purposely went to my journal to read it over and added a few things but there were also times when an idea or thought popped into my head while I was doing something else. I then quickly opened up Evernote to record these thoughts. At the end of the week, I attempted to analyze my incubation journal and I grouped similar topics by color. (Click on the journal picture below or HERE to see my full incubation journal.)Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 9.04.48 AM.png

In addition to this incubation journal, I also held a brainstorming session during the middle of the week. A coworker and I sat down and I described my Problem of Practice and what I had discovered the past few weeks during the empathy and define phases of this design process. We then started throwing out ideas regardless whether they were practical or not. We withheld judgment while we captured all our thoughts and connections on a whiteboard (see below). Fairly early on, we identified a few major topics so I attempted to color-code our ideas the rest of the way. Although there were only two of us brainstorming, it was fun to see how our ideas fed off each other as we built upon each other’s ideas. Even a few impractical ideas led to something more useful. After about 20 minutes, the ideas were slowing down and my co-worker had to teach. However, for the next hour or two, other coworkers passed by the whiteboard and asked me questions about it. This lead to a few more additions. (It is still displayed and I am hoping to come back to it again this coming week to see if any new thoughts, ideas, and connection jump out.)Brainstorming 1

In the coming weeks, I will begin to decide which ideas should be pursued. So far, I really like the idea of combining the AP Biology standards into questions and building each lesson around one of these questions. I think that this will help to free up time (by reducing lessons) while also boosting student motivation as they seek to answer these questions and make connections to other lessons/questions. Another idea to pursue will be flipping the classroom (to some extent) and how homework can be better used to provide crucial information while freeing up class time for more hands-on learning. Finally, I want to pursue student metacognition and encourage my students to think about their thinking. This in part can be done through the iLMS Edify. I feel that I am starting to make progress on my Problem of Practice and I’m excited to see where it ends up!

The Art of Ideation

This week in my Learning Technology By Design class, we are learning about ideation and how it can be broken down into two main part: brainstorming and incubation. 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. Put these two phases together and the ideas should begin to flow! To practice ideation, I was instructed to spend some time jotting down thoughts regarding my Problem of Practice. Following this brainstorming session, I allowed my thoughts and ideas to incubate as I took a break. Immediately after this break, I sat back down to see if any new thoughts or ideas came to mind. My brainstorming notes for both sessions can be found here or by clicking the picture below.

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While I like the idea of this “work-incubation-revisiting” activity, I found that I got the most out of just typing everything that came to mind (brainstorming). I tried to do what this week’s videos and reading told us and just listed everything I was thinking without focusing too much on whether it was a good or bad thought. I planned to do this for the minimum 15 minutes but since the thoughts kept coming, I kept it up for closer to 25 minutes before my thoughts and ideas began to slow down. My incubation time was spent throwing the football around outside with my son. (I had to take advantage of the nearly 60 degree, sunny afternoon!) I’m not too good at throwing spirals but I still think this would be considered a “light mental activity.” I didn’t notice my mind coming back to my problem of practice at all during this break but when I sat back down and looked at my initial notes, I again had a lot of thoughts to write down. While I didn’t come up with anything earth shattering on this second brainstorming session, I was able to type out my thoughts and ideas for another 20-25 minutes.

I think that maybe the structure of this activity puts a lot of pressure on the incubation phase and therefore, it might prevent major inspirations from happening as it felt a bit forced. Based on my previous experiences, I think that a longer incubation phase might help. Maybe as I cook dinner, lay in bed, stand in the shower, or drive to work during the next day, I will be hit with some inspiration. If so, I’ll be sure to edit this post!