Pop the Driving Question

This post is part of a series where I look at the “recipe” of PBL (project based learning) and give an overview of each step and then explain how I have adapted it to the “flavor” of my teaching philosophy and style. I also use SBG (standards based grading) for my assessment method and that influences some of my methods. My hope is that it will be both a good introduction to someone new to PBL and a source of ideas for those who are already teaching with PBL.
by Earl – What I saw 2.0
The next step in the PBL process is to formulate a Driving Question (DQ) for the project. The purpose of a DQ is to hook student interest into the project and to frame what the project entails. All future pieces of the project should relate back underneath the umbrella that is the DQ.
My training included a complicated formula to make sure that you create a good DQ with all of the important details. The examples ended up feeling more like a paragraph than a question. They were very wordy and an adult would have to read them multiple times and break it down into pieces to understand them.
PBLWorks has a planning guide to create DQ’s that you can download and use based on the template above. It actually is a pretty good starting point if you have never written one as it is open-ended and even says that you can skip parts. But it also can become too much of a formula if followed strictly all of the time. I asked for an over the top example on Twitter and Geoff Krall sent me this beauty:
which I must confess is more engaging than some lame educational ones I have heard.
My Method
I don’t care much for the template above. The examples I have seen got too wordy and were not student friendly. Instead I try to think of short, challenging questions that students will be interested in answering. I do not want to start off a project with a boring question! This is an important part of “selling” a project to students. If the question is too complex that students need to re-read it, than simplify it. Students should be able to easily understand your DQ and they should immediately be interested in it as a valid question that they are curios about. When it comes to a good DQ, less is more.
My process begins by summarizing the theme or key learning point that you want students to think about for the project. Then I brainstorm a list of as many DQ’s about the topic that I can think of. This is also a great stage to get some critical friend support and ask others for their ideas. No one is out of bounds. I ask my colleagues, family members, students, and even throw it out on Twitter. I share all of my ideas as I collect them. Usually an excellent question comes quickly out of this process and gets edited in the process to the final DQ.
For example for a project on WWII I might have used the formula to create: “How should have the United States determined if World War II was morally right before entering it?”  Instead I used “When is war just?”
For a project on slavery, racism, and genocide the formula might give me: “How can students at KIH produce a video to motivate Americans to prevent genocide?” Instead I came up with “Why do people tolerate hate?” This one actually got lengthened from “Why do people hate?” because I wanted to emphasize the continued lack of action by the world in the face of modern genocides.
For a project addressing standards of Middle East conflict and the history of the geographic spread of religions I debated on a couple different paths. Some of my suggestions were:  
  • Does religion cause all wars?
  • Are social networks triggering social revolutions? 
  • How does technology change societies?
But I ended up deciding on “What will be the results of the Arab Spring?” because it tied into current events but required them to research backwards to make a prediction about the future.
Hopefully these examples give you a flavor for my opinion of a good DQ. Remember, keep them simple, student-friendly, and interesting. DON’T BE BORING!
Next post will be about deciding on students’ proof of learning (POL) or final product that will demonstrate their learning.

One thought on “Pop the Driving Question

  1. whatedsaid

    Hi Michael

    Love the way you change the topic based questions into conceptual ones, which are transferable to other contexts…

    Would love you to post this at Inquire Within.


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