George Lucas Educational Foundation
PBL Planning

In Search of the Driving Question

Coming up with the driving question in project-based learning is often the hard part, so we’ve got some ideas to help you craft a great one.
A group of students discuss a driving question with their teacher.
A group of students discuss a driving question with their teacher.

Project-based learning teachers can choose from among many types of driving questions, but sometimes we get stuck when trying to come up with a great one because there are so many considerations in the design process that informs the crafting of an effective driving question.

Here are some ideas for how to resolve these difficulties and craft a strong question for your project.

Driving or Essential?

I’ve had teachers ask, “What is the difference between driving questions and essential questions?” It comes down to intent. In my discussions with Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design—the book that developed the idea of the essential question—he and I came to the conclusion that a driving question might fall in Stage 1 (Desired Outcomes) or Stage 3 (Learning Plan) of the Understanding by Design framework. The desired outcomes are focused on learning, and thus include skills and knowledge we want students to learn, as well as questions directly connected to that learning. An essential question is always in Stage 1, as it aligns to desired learning results.

However, when you dig into the use and intent of a driving question, it is intended to be a tool to engage students. It’s part of the learning plan and a hook to engage students. An essential question, while provocative and intended to lead to inquiry, does not need to be the hook—a teacher may or may not use every essential question with their students, but the driving question is always used with students during instruction throughout the project.

Teachers use driving questions in learning activities to direct the students’ inquiry and increase their engagement. In fact, the driving question operationalizes the challenge, which is part of the learning plan. A driving question may have many essential questions connected to it or that come out of the inquiry process.

Great Options

The best—though sometimes frustrating—part of driving questions is that there are so many options. Here are some of the most popular types of driving questions.

Philosophical or Debatable: These types of questions are honestly debatable and have complex possible answers. All driving questions should be open-ended, but philosophical or debatable questions by nature require rigorous thought and corresponding student products. Example: Should we build a new highway in the proposed area?

Product-Oriented: This is a great type of driving question to use if you have a specific student product in mind. It isn’t just about the product, but the purpose as well. Examples: How do we create a podcast to debunk myths and stereotypes of world religions? How do I create a marketing plan for a local business?

Role-Oriented: Students, even in high school, love to take on roles and pretend to be things they’re not. In this type of driving question, you give students an authentic or real-world role with a problem to solve or project to accomplish. Example: How do I as a scientist design an experiment to debunk a common scientific myth?

Generating Powerful Driving Questions

Focus on Action: As I wrote in a previous article, verbs can be powerful tools for student engagement when it comes to questions. While tell might be appropriate, maybe convince or advocate are better actions to take. Think about using powerful, action-oriented verbs.

Remember Age Appropriateness: One refinement consideration is the age and maturity of your students. A product-oriented question might be too wordy for younger students. And we don’t want the driving question to be too academic for students. For older students, we might be able to be more provocative with the questions. Consider what your students will understand and find engaging.

Try a Round Robin: Sometimes the best help is right next to us—our colleagues. One powerful strategy that helps us generate new ideas is a Round Robin, where we pass ideas around a table or large group. Write a driving question for your project and pass it to a colleague. That colleague writes another possible question. The paper is passed to another colleague, and the process continues until the paper is filled with driving questions. You can use the many ideas to affirm your thinking, adjust your question, or create a brand-new one.

Give the Question to a Student: We spend time crafting and refining driving questions for students, so test out the driving question you’ve created on students and see how they react. Take a small group of students aside for a focus group or just share it in a casual conversation. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, “I guess that sounds cool.”

Create the Question With Students: If you and your students are up for it, take time to create the question in class. You might use a method like the Question Formulation Technique to have students generate many questions on a topic or focus statement, and then help to narrow that list to one overarching driving question. Or have students create questions, narrow them down to a short list yourself, and then have students vote on the one they should investigate as a class. It’s perfectly fine to give students a driving question, but consider challenging them to be agents in creating it in the first place.

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Gregory Walston's picture

Andrew, this is a great review and offers wonderful tips on designing PBL. I really like the way you delineated driving versus essential questions in this post. Very helpful!

Thom Markham's picture

A Driving Question is meant to capture the 'problem to be solved.' It is open ended but has constraints. The constraints force choices, which requires critical thinking. The very best criterion for a good PBL project is whether the DQ sets up the problem; otherwise, you get projects, not PBL.

Jenni McIvor's picture

Hey, this sounds heaps like Robert Fisher's socratic questions. I agree that teacher's have a really specific role to promote questioning that leads to deeper thinking and really tease out issues, rather than always having to come to a right/wrong answer. We're going to be trying philosophy for children in our school, and so I'm hoping that enables us to sit more easily with unknowables, and be more able to listen to different perspectives.

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