Finding the Right Problem

Fulfilling Student Needs, Idea Generation, Feedback, and Radical Collaboration

Within the classroom, teachers enter the problem space identified by Dr. Clark and Norman (2013) by generating ideas for topics they want to open to students.  They ask themselves questions about what issues, ideas, or questions are intriguing, compelling, or sufficiently complex that they require in-depth examination and investigation.  This initial exploration is really a crucial component of moving into design mode.  Teachers begin by asking:

  1. What matters about this topic?
  2. What are the issues, questions, and ideas surrounding this topic?
  3. What are the unresolved questions and/or problems within this topic?
  4. What do students need?

Before embarking further, teachers need bring their thinking in this initial problem space to students and colleagues—they require feedback.  Will students find the topic identified as a problem, question, or issue intriguing?  Is there a wide enough scope that students will be able to find many ways into the topic and bring their own resources, ideas, and experiences to bear?  Is the question basic enough that every student can become engaged?  Is it challenging enough that even the brightest minds in the world still struggle to understand?

Teachers need a lot of feedback on their initial ideas before becoming too heavily invested emotionally and intellectually at this stage of the design process.  Dr. Clark identifies the following core element of design thinking as being open to deciding what the right problem might be to solve and being open to a wide range of solutions to address it. 

For teachers, setting the boundaries for your topic so that you can decide what's in and what's out is an important component of identifying the problem space phase; however, this step is completed after a topic has been selected through the processes of idea generation, collaboration, and feedback.  In setting the boundaries it is important to ensure the boundaries are established so that there is room for all students to engage richly with the topic at hand.  Students need to be able to pose problems, engage in problem solving, develop expertise, build on existing knowledge, bring forth evidence, work with ideas, explain new insights, and generate new ideas.


  • If a topic is framed as a question, there has to be a right answer. Much traditional teaching and assessment practice has been focused on finding right answers. Consider these research findings: "When teachers treat answers as the primary or even sole evidence of learning, lessons end once students have given these answers. Students become conditioned to guess what the teacher wants, and even when they get an answer right they aren't sure why."[1]
  • If a study is framed as a question, any answer will do. This misconception is referred to "rubbery relativism". When deeper learning of essential concepts is the goal, students should learn more about the topic—not simply express opinions about it. Students should read with understanding, interpret findings, critique sources, and argue points of view more and more persuasively. As they work in a variety of subject disciplines, they should learn more about how each subject gives a particular window on the world. They should learn how to look through more than one window and discuss the world with increasing depth and understanding.

Identifying Understanding

This might seem too obvious for words—which is a really good reason for stopping for a minute to discuss why the idea is worth mentioning at all.  When teachers see their job as mainly covering curriculum, questions of student understanding are not front and center.  What matters most is whether the curriculum concepts have been addressed.  Think about the panic that sometimes sets in when the end of the year is coming and teachers still have two topics to cover.  There is huge pressure to be able to show that at least the students have been exposed to the ideas—whether or not they find those ideas interesting, engaging or even understandable.  When teachers think about your worst "coverage nightmare", they can see the problems of understanding that a focus on coverage can create.

Sometimes teachers have the opposite sort of dilemma.  They have many neat activities for students to complete, but no clear idea of what all these activities should add up to.  There may be assignments, activities, labs, and centers of all sorts, and the students might experience a range of interesting things to do, but the focus is more on creating activities than on deciding which major ideas need to be developed, explored or investigated.  Think about the concept of "themes" or "units".  If students are studying Bears, with no clear focus on what is important or intriguing or problematic about bears, they might end up doing math facts or writing stories on bear-shaped worksheets, graphing "what's your favorite kind of bear", and singing Teddy Bear's Picnic every morning. While students might also be learning important scientific information about bears as well, there is no real way for the student to sort out what matters from what is merely entertaining.

Here are three questions that help to establish what students need to understand about the topic by the time the study is over:

1. What should they care about or fall in love with?

If you have chosen an important, engaging topic, it would be wonderful if students became passionate about the ideas and issues that they explore.  If you can identify some of the most compelling problem, puzzles or dilemmas that the area opens up, chances are good that students will be willing to follow you into their heart.  If you, as the teacher, have no real idea why a topic is interesting or engaging, chances are just as good that any interest students develop will be accidental.

2. If they forgot all but one thing you taught them about this topic, what would you want that one thing to be?

When all the details that surround a good study have fallen away, when the labs are over, or the books have been shut for a number of years, what do you want to remain in students' minds and hearts?  A good study takes on questions of enduring value[2]: those questions that lie at the heart of a discipline, or that have endured throughout history as worthy of human thought and exploration, and those questions that remain compelling even today.

3. If students don’t understand this about the topic, they don’t really understand anything. What is this?

Sometimes big ideas and essential questions are very broad.  That shouldn't blind us to the fact that they are also very deep.  A question that goes to the heart of a key concept will help students develop understandings that will make all subsequent learning meaningful.  These ideas don't have to have a huge scope in order to be important.  For example, if a child in Grade 1 learns that the equal sign on their worksheet is a "do it", like the equal sign on a calculator, they might be able to answer questions like [2 + 2 = ] without any apparent difficulty.  But then they become confused and frustrated when algebra shows up and they are now asked to balance an equation.  They key understanding they lack is that an equal sign is the expression of balance or equivalence, not a marching order!

Or think about why we want students to be able to talk about similes and metaphors.  If we ask them only to identify metaphors or similes on worksheets, they may never develop crucial understandings of analogous thinking.  They might never put together the importance of relationships between images, feelings and ideas.

Or consider this example from a standardized examination in Social Studies given to Grade 6 students.  In a multiple choice question, students were asked to identify the main responsibilities of citizens of a democracy.  The correct response was to obey the laws and pay taxes.  Now, any dictator would be pleased with this answer--but if students think that this is what democracy means, they clearly understand nothing worth knowing about this most important form of government.   What should they know instead?  That is really important to establish right from the outset.


Norman, D. (2013).  The design of everyday things.  New York, NY: Basic Books.


[1] Judith A. Langer. (2001). Turning obstacles into opportunit. Harvard Education Letter, 17,2, 6-7

[2] Wiggins and McTighe