by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

Most educators would agree that engagement and commitment, while elusive, are crucial to getting great work, thinking and attention from students. In pursuit of that teachers often set about the process of following their passions in planning lessons and units with the hope that students will jump on board with the same vigor when unveiled.

Sometimes this magically lines up perfectly and the class buys what you’re selling but oftentimes the lack of student enthusiasm leads to great disappointment.

This is no different when it comes to Project-Based Learning. In the spirit of planning with the end in mind it’s easy to lose focus on what will ignite student excitement, passion and interest. Our thinking often goes straight to our content and standards when creating a Driving Question and thinking of what questions we want our students to answer and things they Need to Know.

Many teachers think in terms of Essential Questions or Enduring Understandings or even Overarching Questions and while these are often very helpful and important to teachers, are they important to students? In a blog post clarifying UbD’s essential questions vs. the new Social Studies C3 Framework’s compelling questions the late Grant Wiggins used this language when describing essential questions – History teachers often define “essential” as “essential to me and my course as a history teacher.”

With this in mind I often prompt teachers planning projects to think about planning from this perspective:

What question(s) can we ask students that are important enough to them that they will, in the process, ask and answer the questions important to teachers?

For example, a social studies essential question like, Should _______ (e.g., immigration, media expression) be restricted or regulated? When? Who decides? is definitely worth answering and something that we would want students to wrestle with but how many students will be enthusiastic about doing so? What if instead we asked How might we host an immigration roundtable in our community? Without assuming that this necessarily would ignite student interest you could see, with an emotionally engaging Entry Event, how putting this question in a local context might grab students while getting them to engage with the original essential question important to teachers.

2181786826_32c16f046b_b-300x200Moving to science, another essential question like Is Aging a Disease? might be reframed by asking students something like What if we could stop Aging? and had an authentic audience ask them to create a TED Talk like event to showcase their thinking? Again, I’m not saying that this idea would necessarily hook students, that is something each teacher has to gauge, find, and plan for. That being said, finding ways to contextualize what essential questions are asking can be a true ally in getting students to do great work and thinking.

Great teaching and learning is inherently academically and intellectually engaging but it’s important to remember that many students aren’t interested in playing school and need the emotional hook to give them a reason to begin their work. And really if we as teachers approach it from the perspective of it being “their work” and not ours by asking great questions that compel them to tackle real world problems and issues important to them what would that do to generate vigor and craftsmanship?

Grow with >> TeachThought PD’s PBL and Inquiry Workshops.

*previously published at



  1. Stefanos Habtu

    How does PBL works or modeled to a short term training (4 weeks) for youth adults in our Retail Career Pathway Program? We want to engage the youth in identifying challenges and possible solutions and in the process develop skills for the 21 C workplace using PBL.

    A project they will be working is a visit to a clothing store to meet with the store manager and talk to the employees of the store to learn about the day today challenges and problems faced. The idea is for the participants to bring back the challenges and problems to class and brainstorm in a group of 4 and come out with suggestions or solutions to the challenges and send a report to the store Manager and get feedback on the project. We hope this project to help them with their thinking skills, team work, problem solving, communication skills.

    All our employment related training programs are short from 4 to 12 weeks in duration.

    By the way this project is our first and we are looking forward to learn from it and keep improving it.

    Any suggestion or ideas will be much appreciated.

    Thank you.

    • Drew Perkins

      Hi Stefanos, this sounds like a great basis for a quality PBL experience. Perhaps the planning documents and resources on our PBL Workshop page would be a helpful start? Let me know how we can help!


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