I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Student Centered Lesson Design: Teach The Way They Want To Learn

Student centered lesson design teach the way they want to learn

One day I was in class and my teacher was giving us a long lecture while we took notes. There was not much interaction so I started to doze off. Eventually, I fell asleep. I was awoken by the teacher repeatedly saying my name and everyone laughing at me. I also missed the notes so I became stressed at home. I have never felt so humiliated.

If you want to know how to help someone do something, ask.

But don't just ask. Let students figure out what they really want and need first. Then, let them tell you. Take a few days. It could go something like this...

  1. Encourage students to interview each other about the obstacles to learning they experience so they can develop Empathy
  2. Devise time for them to Define obstacles to learning most students experience.
  3. Inspire them to Ideate solutions to these obstacles and problems.
  4. Plan a day for your students to Prototype these solutions.
  5. Transform their learning and your teaching by Testing your students' solutions.

During the first week of school, I set out to show my high school students how the Design Thinking process works, by having them design their learning experience. The problem posed was that 4 out of 5 high schoolers are stressed and two-thirds are bored by school. As a teacher, I want to do much better than that. And who better to help me than my students?

So I asked them and...

It. Was. Awesome.

The challenge I presented them with was to Create an Ideal Lesson, a 50-minute learning experience that's meaningful, fun, and memorable. A lesson that does not look like the one a student described above that put him to sleep. That same student just got an A on the first chemistry test. Clearly, he is not a kid who takes school lightly.

For the project, students took 3 days interviewing each other about their best and worst learning experiences, brainstorming ideas to fix bad teaching, and creating an ideal lesson plan. On day four, they tested their product before an audience of peers.

It was loud. Students were on their phones a lot. Some seem distracted and off task. I experienced a few instances of doubt wondering if I am doing the right thing. I was worried they will just get the assignment done and give me a bunch of superficial crap.

I was wrong. They crushed the challenge. Just take a look...

Common Classroom Instructional Problems Students Identified

  1. Too much talking or instruction by the teacher
  2. No time to practice what they were fed during direct instruction
  3. Long lectures without any physical activities that stimulate
  4. Excessive homework
  5. Minimal interaction between students and teacher leads to boredom

Solving The Classroom Boredom

Each group of students created its own ideal lesson plan, but a few solutions were universal

  1. A flexible learning environment with open seating. Students can choose where to sit and who to work with at least some of the time.
  2. Add more interactive games, movie clips, songs, motivational videos
  3. Organized teacher: agenda and objectives given at the beginning of class.

What A Better Lesson Could Look Like

Again, each group came up with its own ideal lesson plan, but below is one example (with a few mix-it-up) alternatives of what class could look like.

1. Start with something fun or interesting

It could be a story, a quick video, an interesting fact; something novel or exciting. This will set the tone for the lesson, letting the students relax and engage.

2. Review Concepts

Do a quick review of the information covered the day before and allow students to ask questions. Personally, I believe in this as it provides spaced repetition, helps clarify misconceptions, and allows students to connect the past (yesterday's) and the new (today's) learning.

3. Direct Instruction

Make it quick and interactive and it will be more effective. This is what many of my students suggested and they may be onto something. As the human mind can pay attention for about 10 minutes before it hits the slow or no more brain processing capacity wall, keep the talk to about 10 minutes. If you need to go a little bit longer, design your lessons to include some form of activity after the initial 10 minutes. It could be a quick pair and share or discuss in a group or even a stand up and stretch break. And for the love of reason, do not extend direct instruction past the 20-minute mark!

4. Brain Break

My students did not call it a brain break specifically, but this is what they meant. If you've heard of the productivity hack called the pomodoro technique you know that the 25-minute chunk of time reserved for it is not random. It supports and validates the fact that the human brain gets tired and when it does our focus and productivity suffers. A 5-minute break that follows an intense processing session refreshes the mind so it can focus and produce at a high level once again.

5. Work Time

This could be time to solve problems or complete activities that support the concepts introduced during direct instruction. It borders educational malpractice not to allow such time in math and science classes that require heavy doses of analytical thinking and problem-solving. Teacher modeling is important, but it is not enough. Rather than cover the next concept or a type of problem, allow your students to practice the first type first. Otherwise, you will find yourself once again wondering why many students don't get it.

Same goes for other classes. Instruct on 1 to 3 key topics and allow students to create meaning, understandings, and memories through activities that ask them to apply these concepts. This also allows you to walk around and help students, and to collect feedback on how well they are understanding the ideas previously discussed. It also builds relationships.


Design Thinking and Student-Centered Teaching are a match made in heaven. Is the above lesson template ideal? Of course not. It isn't always practical either, so changing things up while always including elements students identify to be effective is the key to teaching success. Teaching is about helping students learn, not molding them to be a certain way.

As teachers, we sometimes worry about not having enough time for fun, or repetitive review of concepts, or allowing plenty of class time for problem-solving, but I think slowing down in this way relieves some stress and leads to deeper learning, so is worth it regardless of how it affects the curriculum timetable. 

Too many projects are too structured stifling student creativity. Promoting an open educational environment helps students feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and motivates them to put effort into projects in ways they feel comfortable with, resulting in higher quality work, and much higher variety of projects. 

    As I was walking around and talking to different groups about the project, I started saying that I want to steal their mojo and the mojos of the best teacher's that taught them in the past. The truth was that my students used their own experiences in designing their lessons. This means that they used their own ideas of what works best (is most interesting, fun, effective, and memorable) and those of their best teachers. That's major mojo theft, that benefits students and grows teachers. I say steal away.

    The power of design thinking is in ownership of the learning. You can help your students learn Design Thinking as they are using Design Thinking to come up with solutions to a common problem. You help them own their learning because they're creating it themselves. 

    You have the power to change lives. Use it often.

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