Why Need to Knows are the Essential Structure of PBL

Project Based Learning is all about student-centered voice and choice, but it’s not a free-for-all. PBL is the framework that employs inquiry for purposeful learning. The Need to Know (N2K) process is the central structure that starts a project with students’ questions and keeps them the focal point throughout. Let’s look at the basics of how to do N2Ks and then answer some common questions from teachers.

Need to Know Process

Every project should start with an engaging entry event to introduce the focal point and get students excited about the topic. The entry event could be anything from a short video to a multiple day simulation. Once kids are primed about the project topic, share the Driving Question along with an entry document that lays out any logistical details of the project such as product showcase dates, community partners, and basic requirements. Now take the class through the following steps:

  • Students individually jot down N2Ks from the entry event, entry document, or their background knowledge on sticky notes, scrap paper, or in a journal.
  • In groups of 4-5, students share their N2Ks with each other and choose their top 3 questions.
  • In a round robin, each group tells the class their unique questions and a scribe writes them on poster paper.
  • None of the N2Ks are answered on day 1, but they are posted in a visible location to be addressed daily.

What if kids don’t ask hardly any questions?

If your students are new to PBL they may be unsure about what to ask the first time. One approach is to teach them to ask questions before the project by using KWLs.

I believe that the initial framing of the N2Ks is critical for students understanding. Ask them to imagine that they had to start the project immediately.

  • What do they need to know to begin?
  • Where will they get stuck?
  • What will they need help on?
  • What do they need to research or learn more about?
  • What about the topic fascinates them?

Asking these kinds of questions at age appropriate levels guides students into the kind of questions to ask.

What if they only ask logistical questions?

Oftentimes students get bogged down into logistical questions that don’t lead to inquiry. They want to know “when is it due?” “who is in my group?” and details about the final products. One way to pre-empt these questions is to include the information in the entry document.

Another approach is teach students the difference between open and closed-ended questions through the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). I have found this to be an extremely effective instruction to asking better questions. Then during the N2K process, I ask students to come up with open-ended questions that lead to inquiry.

How do I lesson plan the project ahead of time before the N2K process?

Student-centered inquiry is still teacher directed. Think of the entry event as laying out a trail of bread crumbs leading students to the content standards and skills that you plan to address. The first time that your students experience PBL you may need to leave a trail of whole loaves of bread making the destination obvious and the next time slices. Eventually you can leave the smallest of crumbs and students will search out the connections. Building curiosity in learning is one of the important outcomes.

As the teacher, you are familiar with the content and skills required to be taught at that grade level or class. You also probably know some areas where students tend to get stuck and will need support. You can plan workshops in advance of the project launch, anticipating what students will need. But instead of starting with these lessons, you provide them in response to the N2K questions that students generate.

What if kids’ questions are totally different than what I expected?

Sometimes, even though you carefully planned an entry event to address specific content goals, kids see the topic in a different way than you expect. Usually this is a positive direction and oftentimes takes a project deeper. As long as you achieve your content/standard goals then pivot the project to student interests. You will have more buy-in, than if you try to force students down a pre-determined path. If you “leave space” in your planning for student audibles then this will not be as stressful, but a natural part of the process.

Another way to define parameters for your project is through local partnerships. If the project requires students to solve specific issues in the community, then that oftentimes creates natural limits to where the project goes.

Why do I need to post N2Ks on the wall?

Since my school was 1:1 with laptops, I started having students write their N2Ks in a Google Doc and posting it in our LMS. It seemed like a good use of technology, but what ended up happening is that we never revisited them. They were out of sight and out of mind.

N2Ks need to be visited daily, crossing them off as students answer them and adding new ones to the list. Every action in class should be framed as helping students answer on of the questions on the list. N2Ks are the most basic form of student voice and choice.

What if we don’t get to answer all of them?

Establish from the start that you may not answer every one of the questions in class. And that’s ok. Use questions that you know are beyond the scope of your focus as extensions for fast workers who finish early. Challenge them to research a N2K and come back tell you what exciting things that they learned.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.

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