How Do I Write A Driving Question For PBL?

Jan 31, 2024 | PBL

How Do I Write A Driving Question For PBL?

by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education

One of the key pieces of designing and implementing project-based learning is the Driving Question, often called the DQ. The DQ grounds the work that students will do and when crafted and used well, is a powerful leverage point for what we call ‘Rich Inquiry’ and critical thinking. Teachers should keep some key components in mind when wondering “How Do I Write A Driving Question For PBL?”

Part of the planning process for project based learning is writing an effective Driving Question. Often this starts as a draft that might feel clunky but after some iterations becomes more student-friendly. We don’t want them to seem too much like ‘teacher-speak’, be too vague or general, and they should absolutely be open-ended. If your DQ is easily answered by a Google search or something similar then you should revise it.

With those basic principles in mind, in our Foundations of PBL Workshops, we advocate for teachers to clarify three things as they’re planning their projects. Those three things are product, purpose, and audience. A good way to do this is to write them into the early iterations of the Driving Question using our Driving Question ‘Starter’ Template.

We emphasize ‘Starter’ because we want teachers to use this as a starting point from which to iterate to make it more student-friendly and less clunky. The point is to be sure, in the planning process, that the teacher, and eventually the student, has clarity on product, purpose, and audience because without that your project will flounder.

Students should know what they are creating, why they are creating it, and for whom. The ‘why’, in this case, shouldn’t be confused with your ‘why’ as a teacher. You want them to engage in this PBL experience so they can learn important knowledge and skills but in the context of the Driving Question the ‘why’ is connected to their authentic audience. Students knowing who their audience is and how their product is meant to be useful to or received by that audience helps leverage the inquiry process because they’ll have to identify the audience’s needs and how to meet those needs.

As teachers refine the planning and design of a project the ‘Starter’ version of the Driving Question should be refined to make it more elegant. The final version of the DQ may not explicitly have all three of those elements included but having clarified them in the planning process you can communicate them to students as you launch the project as a teacher in one of our workshops did in the image below.

Writing and using a Driving Question effectively is a vital part of robust PBL. Part of that is making it ready and useful for students but we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the draft and iteration process to successful project design.

There are some structural best practices like starting your question with “How might (or can) we…?” instead of something like “What is…?” and making sure you use the DQ throughout the project. However, teachers who understand the inquiry ‘pull teaching‘ dynamic and how to connect the Need to Know questions to content knowledge and understanding can use the Driving Question to drive surface, deep, and transfer learning.

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