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by John Larmer
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July 13, 2018
A Tricky Part of PBL: Writing a Driving Question

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief


We’ve noticed over the years of facilitating our PBL 101 workshops that one of the most challenging parts for teachers designing a project is writing the driving question. One reason is that it’s a writing task, and not everyone is a writer. Many teachers are great at creating curriculum units and lesson plans, and many are great at working with students, but crafting the wording of a question that captures the heart of a project can be tricky.

Let's review. A good driving question meets the following criteria:

  • Engaging for students. It is understandable and interesting to students, and it provokes further questions and focuses their inquiry process.
  • Open-ended. There are several possible answers, and it cannot simply be Googled.
  • Aligned with learning goals. To answer it, students will need to learn the targeted content and skills.

Troubleshooting Common Pitfalls
Let’s look at some typical “first drafts” and how they can be improved to better meet the above criteria.

 

First Draft Driving
Question for PBL Unit

Critique

Revised Driving Question
for PBL Unit

What adaptations do animal species make to survive in various habitats? Not engaging, because it sounds like a teacher or textbook. Could a dog live in the desert?
What are the major industries in our state?
 
Not open-ended, could be answered in a one-minute search; does not require critical thinking. Why does our state produce the things it does?
How is math used in basketball statistics? Not engaging enough: too broad, not provocative. Is LeBron James the best basketball player ever?
Which buildings in our county should be classified as historic and protected, because they represent important pieces of our past? Not engaging, because it uses adult language and suggests the preferred answer. Does it matter if old buildings in our county are torn down?
Should natural areas be developed? Not as engaging as it would be if it were specific and local. Should our city build new housing on the land near the river?
What were the causes of the U.S. Civil War? Not open-ended and does not require critical thinking and debate. What was the most important cause of the U.S. Civil War?
How are similar themes and topics explored in stories by authors from different cultures? Not engaging, because it states learning goals and sounds like a teacher. Do people everywhere tell the same stories?
What should people consider when planning for financing college or buying a home? Not as engaging as it would be if it were specific and had a charge to take action What financial planning advice would we give to our “client” family?
Why is genetic engineering a bad idea? Engaging, but slanted in one direction (the teacher's). Should we allow designer babies?
How can we use measurement skills and geometry to plan a park? States learning goals but doesn’t have to; lacks a purpose or “why.” How can we plan a park that people in our community will visit?
© 2018 Buck Institute for Education    

 

Specify the Role & Product, or Not?
Another issue about driving questions that crops up in our workshops and among our National Faculty when coaching teachers is more matter of preference, although it can affect student engagement. You’ll notice on the above chart that I did not include the project’s product in any of the revised driving questions. I also did not include a role that students are playing. But the product and role could be specified in some projects, and might be useful for students in some cases.

At the Buck Institute, we talk about two general types of driving questions in PBL, and here are some pros and cons for each:

1. DQs that explore a philosophical or debatable issue, or an intriguing topic, such as:
  • Is there “liberty and justice for all” in our society?
  • Could there be life on other planets?
  • What should be our policy on immigration?
  • What does it mean to be a man?
  • Does it matter what we eat?

Pros: Highly engaging to students; the kind of question they’ll keep talking about when they leave the classroom. Often resemble “essential questions” found in Understanding by Design and the Coalition of Essential Schools, which teachers may be familiar with.

Cons: Harder to write; may feel like advanced PBL practice because the task and product are not spelled out. Typically found more often in upper grade levels and certain subject areas (e.g., humanities) more than others (e.g. math, world languages, career/tech).

2. DQs that specify a product to be created or a problem to be solved—to which the students’ role may be added, such as:

  • How can we help protect an endangered species in our area?
  • How can we reduce bullying?
  • How can we create a guide to our community for new immigrants?
  • How can we, as historians, create podcasts that tell the story of our city?
  • How can we, as medical interns, diagnose a sick patient?

Pros: Easier to write. Helps focus younger students on their task in a project. Roles define the kind of thinking we want students to do (as historians, scientists, etc.), add a real-world element, and can be good for career exploration.

• Cons: Can feel less engaging for students; sometimes simply states what the teacher wants students to do. Roles may feel fake to some students; older students in PBL especially may prefer being themselves.

 

As with many decisions teachers need to make when designing and facilitating PBL, how to write a driving question depends on your own style, your context, your students. I lean toward student engagement as the most important criterion. I’d also advise teachers to get feedback from colleagues on your draft driving questions—and even from students in a focus group. Or you could actually co-craft it with students… but that process is a whole ‘nother story (see this post by our National Faculty member Sara Lev for more on that).

Feel free to reach me on Twitter @johnlbie to share your driving questions and get feedback!


For more information about writing driving questions, check out this BIE webinar.


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