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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Write Effective Driving Questions for Project-Based Learning

Start by understanding that driving questions are for the teacher and the student.

August 17, 2011 Updated August 20, 2015

Andrew Miller is a consultant for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization that specializes in project-based curriculum. See his previous blogs for Edutopia and follow him on Twitter @betamiller.

Driving questions (DQ) can be a beast. When I train teachers, they say the same thing, "Writing the driving question is one of the hardest parts of an effective PBL." I agree. When I am constructing a DQ for a PBL project, I go through many drafts. It's only now, after implementing many projects and having coached countless teachers that I consider myself adept.

To get a better sense of this, I encourage you to watch some videos at the Buck Institute for Education's "How To Do PBL" playlist on their YouTube Channel before we dig in.

Our Driving Question Now Is: How to Write an Effective Driving Question?

First, we need to understand why we have them. Driving questions are there for two entities, the teacher and the student.

For the teacher: A DQ helps to initiate and focus the inquiry. Remember the project shouldn't be trying to solve the world's problems. Instead, it should be a focused action, and focused inquiry; the goal is to ensure the students are focused. The teacher needs to help focus the teaching and learning, and the driving question help with that.

It also captures and communicates the purpose of the project in a succinct question. When reading the driving question, the teacher and student should be clear on what the overall project is as well as its purpose. Also for the teacher, it helps to guide planning and reframe standards or big content and skills. I will say more about this later, but the driving question should not sound like a standard reimagined in the form of a question. Instead, use the driving question to reframe the standards in ways that are accessible to both you the teacher and the student.

For the student Ultimately, the driving question is for the students. It creates interest and a feeling of challenge so that even the most reluctant student thinks, "Hmmm, I guess that sounds kinda cool."

It guides the project work. All work for the project, including the culminating project and daily lessons and activities, should be trying to help students answer the driving question. Whether it's a lesson on commas, or implementation time, or drill-and-skill with math problems, the work needs to connect to the driving question. Why? The seemingly "boring" activities of the day-to-day have reason, relevancy and purpose, and then guess what? They aren't boring anymore.

This relates to my next point. It helps student answer the question: "Why are we doing this?" This is the Golden Question that many administrators ask students when they are visiting. If your driving question is good, it can help connect that work so that students can articulate the reason behind daily lessons and activities.

My driving question is posted all over my classroom. It's on worksheets, the project wall, and the online blog. It is continually referred to while we are working on the project so students are reminded of the purpose of the project and daily work.

The Tale of the "Snarky Kid"

I must tell the story about "Snarky Kid." Snarky Kid is the kid who pretends to hate everything in school or your class, but still shows up and does work. In my class, we were doing some comma practice sheets in class right after a direct instruction lesson. Our driving question was: "How do we get a government official to preserve both casinos and the culture of local native peoples?"

My administrator, of course, came up to Snarky Kid, and asked, "What are you working on and why?"

Snarky Kid replied, "We are working on stupid commas."

"Oh, I see," said my administrator. "Why are you working on commas?"

"Because we are writing letters to the senator to make her change her mind, and we don't want our letters to suck. We want her to read them, and not look bad."

Fantastic, right!?! Despite the crass answer, Snarky Kid was able to articulate the immediate relevance of the task. I'd like to think that maybe the driving question helped that student to answer the administrator's question.

In my next blog, we will explore different types of driving questions, look at some transformations from bad to good driving questions, and look are some further criteria. In the meantime, I'm leaving you with a task to practice refining driving questions.

Practice Refining Driving Questions

Watch the video on the Tubric, a useful tool to help create effective driving questions, and then follow this link to create one of your own. (courtesy of my colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education)

Even nerdy activities have their place in the classroom. (Can I get an amen?)

Next, use the Tubric to refine the poorly written driving questions below. It's true, you have not yet received all the tips and tricks I have to share, nor do you know exactly what the PBL projects are that connect to the driving questions presented. However, you can still practice, and maybe come up with questions of your own around creating effective driving questions. (Hint: I'm modeling part of the PBL process in this exercise.)

Here are some driving questions for you to refine. Feel free to pick one and focus your work. I'll be covering some of the tips and tricks to refine driving questions in my next post.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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