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The most important question to ask when starting PBL

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The most important question to ask when starting PBL

When you start a new unit, do your students know what they will be doing and learning?  Do they understand why?  And do they have a say in any of it?
Implementing a driving question can help you answer ‘YES” to each of these questions. 

What is a driving question?

The driving question unifies and propels learning throughout your unit or project.  It’s the one overarching question students are striving to answer.  Therefore, it needs to be:

  • Provocative: It should get students’ attention, be interesting and relevant, and ultimately help solve a problem. 
  • Open-ended: While the driving question itself should be clear and concise, its answer may be anything but.  In order to propel students through many tasks, the question can not be answered in a sentence or on p. 87 of your textbook.  Students will likely answer this question in many different ways. 
  • Challenging: Your driving question should not be easy to answer–it should actually lead to many more questions and provide students with a just-right level of challenge. 
  • At the heart of the topic: It provides purpose to the learning by helping students answer “why am I learning this?” 

For example, if students engage in historical research that might, on its own, be “boring”, you can increase the task’s importance by using it to answer a very real and relevant question–the driving question. 

Crafting the driving question

In project-based learning, once you have your standards and project in mind, it’s time to craft your driving question.  This will help refine the many ideas that are likely swirling in your mind and help create an entire unit of learning, not just a question, that is provocative, open-ended, challenging, and purposeful.

However, driving questions can be helpful even when you aren’t engaging in full project-based learning.  Is there a “big idea” you want students to understand?  A driving question can make that clear and help illuminate the path of learning for students. 

As you develop your driving question, don’t be afraid to revise–you will need to!  It can take some brainstorming and throwing lots of ideas on paper to really pinpoint the driving question. 

Example driving questions

Here are a few examples of driving questions.  Think about how each meets the requirements of provocative, open-ended, challenging, and at the heart of the topic.

  • How can we predict the motion of a flying object to design a fireworks show?
  • How can we make our community safer?
  • How can a country responsibly possess weapons of mass destruction?
  • How might robotics and automation change our town and its businesses in the next decade?
  • Why are bees important and how can we help bee populations locally?
  • How can we use knowledge of native and invasive species to help our natural environment thrive? 

Using the driving question

Post your driving question in your classroom and refer to it often.  Students’ work always comes back to answering this big question. 

The driving question is also used to kick off your unit or project.  Use it to create a student-generated list of “knows” and “need-to-knows:” students create lists of what they know about the topic and everything they will need to know in order to answer this question.  

By making the driving question provocative, challenging, and at the heart of your topic, students can envision the significance of their learning and activities.  By stating it as a question–rather than a statement–students themselves are seeking and developing their own answers to important and complex problems, ultimately, driving their own learning.

Like these ideas? To learn classroom engagement strategies that make the most immediate impact, we recommend checking out our program, "Fostering Student Engagement."

Learn More >

Amy Jimenez

Author Since: May 8, 2018

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