Student Engagement

How to Refine Driving Questions for Effective Project-Based Learning

Identify the type of question you want to ask, ensure it’s appropriate for the students and their culture.

August 24, 2011

In my last blog about driving questions, we reviewed the purpose of the driving question as well as some tools to help you refine your driving questions. In addition, some sample, poorly written driving questions were given to have you practice. We will review them at the end of the blog and look for some exemplars from all of you.

There are many types of driving questions, but I like to break them down into three types.

Philosophical or Debatable: These types of questions are honestly debatable questions that have complex possible answers. Of course, all driving questions should be open-ended, but philosophical or debatable questions by nature require complex, rigorous thought, and of course corresponding student products. Be careful that you aren't writing this type of question, but the answer obviously sways one way. If you have an agenda, and want students to get to a certain place, this isn't the type of question to use.
Example: Can a dog live in the desert?

Product-Oriented: How do we create ______ to ______? This is a great type of driving question to use if you have a specific student product in mind. Notice that 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 an epic poem about an important episode in my daily life?

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

I've had teachers ask, "What is the difference between essential questions (à la Understanding By Design) and driving questions?" In my opinion, essential questions, when created to their utmost potential are driving questions. Driving questions are just essential questions that are high on caffeine. They demand authenticity and rigorous problem-solving, which essential questions can do, but don't always. In addition, essential questions are often created to be more like enduring understands or learning targets. Those are great, but shouldn't be confused with driving questions. Essential questions that sound like enduring understandings are not exciting and do not DRIVE the learning, which brings me to my next point.

We spend time crafting and refining driving questions for the student. The student! Just because a question sounds interesting to you, it may not be to a student. Driving questions must be accessible to the students and engage them. I'm a big nerd, and so love learning. Enduring understandings and questions that mirror them appeal to me, but to the reluctant and marginalized students we are trying to reach, they are not. So remember, it's all about the students. Try testing out the driving question you have created on a student and see how they react. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, "I guess that sounds cool."

One last point, be culturally responsive. Some driving questions may not be appropriate depending on the students you have in your classroom or in the location you teach. The driving question, "How do we create a game to cheat people out of their money without them knowing it?" may not be culturally responsive. A Hindi student might find that question offensive, because it is contrary to cultural values. However, the driving question "How do we create a fun chance game for the neighboring fourth grade classroom?" might be more culturally responsive. Just keep that in mind.

Rewriting Last Week's Poorly Written Questions

Now let's see how I might transform some of the bad driving questions from from last week:

  • What is epic poetry?
    Can be rewritten as
    How do I write an epic poem about an important episode in my life?
    You will notice that the project will be more relevant and challenging. Yes, they will learn epic poetry, but in order to write about themselves.
  • How have native peoples been impacted by changes in the world?
    Can be rewritten as
    How do we create new policies to honor the culture of the Snoqualmie tribe while allowing for casinos?
    Here the question is local. It also demands innovation for a complex task.
  • How does probability relate to games?
    Can be rewritten as
    How do we create a new gambling game to cheat people out of their money without them noticing?
    Here the question is a bit subversive and quite engaging. Content about probability will be learned for an authentic purpose. A quick note, this question may not be culturally responsive, as it demands behavior that may be contrary to certain cultures. In that case, you might make the question, How do we create a chance game to engage elementary students?
  • Why is science important and how can it help save people?
    Can be rewritten as
    Should we allow for genetic engineering to prevent diseases and illnesses?
    Here the question is contentious and debatable, and it is focused on specific topics so that the scope isn't too large.

Well, there you go! Two blogs with tips, tricks, and tools to create great driving questions for your projects. Keep working at the "beast" of driving questions, and you will find yourself able to spout them off at will to your colleagues as they build their PBL projects.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
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