Powering Your PBL Course: Driving Questions

This blog post is part three of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  You can find the other posts in the series here:

Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog, Learning Habit. Thanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  

Powering Your PBL Course: Driving Questions

Assuming you’ve taken care to get clear on your key course content objectives as well as the deeper learning skills you and your school value, you are in position to start working on one of the most enjoyable, though challenging parts of project-based learning design: crafting driving questions.

powering-your-pbl-course-driving-questionsA key premise of project based learning is that much of what we will learn during our lives will happen in the context of solving some sort of problem or challenge. PBL is about cultivating student inquiry. While you will come to develop your own take on driving questions and how they function in your own project design and facilitation, a good starting point is to think of driving questions as open-ended questions that invoke the big ideas or themes addressed in the project. You might think of them as the kinds of questions people in your field have asked in order to arrive at the the knowledge represented in your power standards. The role of the driving question is to provide an overarching focus for the project for you as facilitator and to stimulate student thinking and deep inquiry.

This is easier to see with examples from some NTN Model Projects:

Power Standard Driving Question
Understand internal and external factors that contributed to the the emergence of the United States as an international power from early industrialization to entry into WWI What ideas, traditions, and government policies lead to American imperialist actions?
Learners will summarize, represent, and interpret data on a single count or measurement variable. Includes measures of central tendency (mean, median, mode) and measures of dispersion (standard deviation, interquartile range, box plots, normal curves). How can we make data “say” what we want it to say?
Evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth. How do both nature and nurture affect who I am?
Plan and conduct an investigation and analyze the data from the investigation. What materials are best for a new playground and why?

Notice the driving question points to possible project ideas, but probably isn’t the actual project “ask.” We find it useful to think of the driving question as the more general, conceptual and transferrable question and the project as an opportunity to explore a more particular scenario that makes the abstract driving question concrete and approachable.

For those with a UbD background, driving questions are very similar to essential questions12240049_1018645684833037_1361319865851040432_n and this first chapter from McTighe and Wiggins is a great extended read to get you thinking about these and other sorts of questions in your class.  In particular, their discussion of topical essential questions probably zeros in on the right level of specificity to ensure good alignment to power standards for your course while being general enough to ensure broad application. The chapter includes a number of additional examples you might find useful as well.

As long as we are dishing out terminology, many of our teachers find having students generate a “problem statement” as part of their entry into the project to be a useful move. Problem statements often take form of:

  • How do we as <role in the project>
  • Do <task the project lays out>
  • So that <desired effect for the task>

We are not going to spend time on project ideation and problem statements in this post. We point to the distinction here to show how different questions can carry different parts of the project-design burden.  The driving question anchors the key conceptual ideas and helps with tuning the core content in the power standards. Students craft problem statements to help define the work of the project for themselves.

Many teachers enjoy creating their driving questions, but it is also challenging.  Some questions you might use to guide your own driving question creation:

  • Is it provocative? Does it help stimulate thinking and questions and point to what makes content important?
  • Is it open-ended? Driving questions are best when informed people can disagree about the answer.
  • Does it require support and justification?  Insisting answers go beyond personal opinion necessitates deep content engagement and reinforces the value of having an informed perspective.
  • Does it go to the heart of a discipline or topic? Driving questions ought to require an understanding of key content knowledge and ought to reflect standards and disciplinary frameworks.
  • Does it connect to or help generalize real-dilemmas in the field? While the driving question is typically not the project, it ought to capture the big idea the project explores.
  • Will students find it interesting? Easier said than done, but merely rewriting power standards or curricular aims as questions rarely generates immediate student interest.

The more of the above a driving question addresses, the more likely it is to do the work you need it to do in the project. Crafting the perfect driving question is an ongoing process of iteration each year. If it seems daunting, take heart in the fact that your intentions for the driving question matter more than your precise wording. So long as you are clear about the key ideas for the project and approach that with an intention to excite student thinking and provoke inquiry, you can feel confident your driving question reaches a level of “good enough” even as you revise and refine.


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

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