Tag Archives: inquiry

Remote Inquiry in PBL

This is the third of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.

Remote Inquiry in Project Based Learning might seem like a no-brainer-online research! But let’s think of inquiry in broader terms and consider some other ways to guide students of all ages to engage in inquiry throughout the project cycle. Curiosity is integral to any engaging project, and we can find many ways to build it even when we are not face-to-face.


Texts of all kinds can be research. From non-fiction to fiction; from poetry to graphic novels; from websites to magazines, our students should be exposed to a rich environment of texts. Many school libraries are finding ways for kids to pick up books during remote learning and there are many online books available for free. Make sure that your students are being exposed to a wide variety of authors and texts from diverse viewpoints.

Expanded Research

Too often students are only taught how to do the traditional research of a Google search or how to use peer reviewed journals at the secondary level. There are so many other things that students can research. They can consider primary source images in history and science using routines such as “I notice” and “I wonder.” They can analyze political cartoons, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries or other videos, take virtual field trips, or watch live webcams of natural events. Expanding research to include audio and video elements helps differentiate for English Learners and kids with special needs. It is engaging for ALL students!


All sources ultimately go back to a person who either wrote it down, took a picture or video, or created some kind of artifact. So take your students directly to the source and have them conduct interviews. Students from Kindergarten to college can come up with their own questions based on the Driving Question (DQ) and talk to experts in the field. This person may have a degree at a prestigious university, or they may be a grand parent who remembers a time period in history. Experts are everywhere!

One bonus of remote learning is that there is actually more access to people as pretty much everyone has experience with videoconferencing now and can quickly and easily “join” your class without having the past challenges of distance, travel, or taking off from work.


We’re not talking about taking them, but having students create surveys around their project topic and then send them to the appropriate audience. This data collection is an important part of empathetic design thinking process. To help students to develop the SEL competency of Social Awareness, we need them to consider the DQ from multiple perspectives. Solutions to PBL should require that students address the whole community, especially those least privileged.

Surveys bring a great tie into math as students can decide what kind of graph or chart best represents the data. The results require critical interpretation to be applied to any solution that kids are considering. Creating infographs is a great way for students to communicate their results with the public affected by the problem.


Hands-on learning in PBL is a crucial way for kids to make their own meaning. Send home some instructions for experiments that they can try at home. Of course, make sure that the experiments are safe and inexpensive, but students can do many things at home with some parental guidance. If that is not an option, videotape yourself conducting the experiment at your home for student to observe. Better yet do it live so students can ask questions in real time. Another option are simulations such as PhET science page where students can play around virtually.


Like experiments, this is a great option to get students away from screens. Assign them tasks such as going out side and looking for living vs. non living things. They could be watching animals/insects in their neighborhood. Students could count traffic, notice Covid adaptations in their community, or document whether or not people are social distancing. Teaching students to have a keen eye for what is going on around them and then learning to interpret it is research too!

What other ways are you having students inquire remotely?

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

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 only ask a few 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.